The strange case of 'Mao's Last Dancer,' a meat-and-potatoes art-house hit
It features no big-name stars, drew mediocre reviews and traffics in the esoterica of Chinese ballet.
And yet "Mao's Last Dancer," the true story of a ballet performer who defected to the United States in 1981, has become one of the season's biggest art-house hits.
Bruce Beresford's Australian-produced film tells of Li Cunxin, an 11-year-old Chinese boy plucked from his rural village in 1972 under the reign of Mao Zedong to dance for the Beijing Ballet. While in residence at the Houston Ballet a decade later, he defected to the United States after a politically charged standoff that involved the FBI and diplomats from China and the U.S.
Many critics have found the film's inspirational story both overly earnest and told in a single key, with the movie barely crossing the 50% mark on Rotten Tomatoes. But audiences have felt very differently.
Despite a tough climate for specialty films, the largely English-language movie is nearing the $5 million mark in U.S. box office ($4.5 million coming into this weekend) -- an impressive run that's lasted nearly three months. More people have gone to see "Mao's Last Dancer" than they have some much higher-profile, star-studded specialty films this year, including the Carey Mulligan-Keira Knightley dystopian drama "Never Let Me Go" and the Ben Stiller dramedy "Greenberg."(The biggest stars in "Mao's" are the the workaday actors Bruce Greenwood and Kyle MacLachlan; Li is played by the Chinese ballet dancer Chi Cao.)
The movie's returns have also surpassed far more publicized films such as the social-media thriller "Catfish."
"Mao's" has done all this despite fading quickly in independent-film strongholds such as New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Instead, it has garnered the lion's share of its audience in cities such as San Diego and St. Louis, where it continues to play, according to its distributor Samuel Goldwyn/ATO Pictures.
"It's more of an audience film than a critic's film," said Michael Silberman, the president of distribution and marketing at IDP, the company that releases Goldwyn and ATO films. "Critics respond with their heads, but audiences respond with their hearts."
Older audiences in particular have embraced the movie, Silberman and theater executives said, sparking to its redemptive story of a man who, through talent and determination, was able to defy and defeat a powerful government.
Despite numerous sneak screenings for the Chinese immigrant population, IDP was not, however, successful in drawing a large portion of that audience. "Maybe having Mao in the title wasn't a great idea," Silberman said wryly.
"Mao's Last Dancer" is finishing its third month in theaters (it opened on Aug. 20) despite never grossing more than $500,000 or playing on more than 140 screens on a given weekend. A slow-burn hit is an anomaly in an era where most specialty movies either cross over or die quickly. "Mao's," however, follows in the path of a select group of films, such as the immigrant drama "The Visitor" two years ago and the dysfunctional-family comedy "City Island" earlier this year, that are released quietly but manage to chug along for months.
Word of mouth has been built in part through art-house film clubs such as Talk Cinema, a grassroots organization of film aficionados run by veteran critic Harlan Jacobson, which screened the movie to members early and helped seed its popularity.
"Mao's" box-office performance also represents a comeback for Beresford, the Australian filmmaker who directed the Oscar-winning blockbuster "Driving Miss Daisy" two decades ago but has fallen on hard times in recent years. His last movie, a thriller titled "The Contract," was not even released in the United States.
The conventional wisdom in recent years has been that the multiplex is the place for spectacle and feel-good comedies, while the art house has specialized in dark films. But it turns out that the art house sometimes favors the upbeat; indeed, even when dark movies have done well this year, it's been with the help of near-universal critical praise and a breakout performance, such as the Jennifer Lawrence-starring Ozarks drama "Winter's Bone."
The strong reception for "Mao's," on the other hand, suggests that a little uplift can go a long way, even when the subject matter might otherwise seem abstruse. "This movie is an old-fashioned crowd-pleaser," McClellan said. "And there's always an audience for one of those."
-- Steven Zeitchik
Photo: Mao's Last Dancer. Credit: Samuel Goldwyn Films
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