Mao’s Last Dancer

One of the timeless debates that tends to rear its ugly head whenever a film based on a popular book is released is whether the book should be read before the film is seen; or vice-versa. I’ve heard arguments both ways. At least one of my friends (admittedly with a slight audio-visual obsession) swears by seeing the film first – this way, he reasons, he has a reasonable idea whether or not he should invest the time, effort and money in reading the book. I tend to lean towards the other school of thought. Books intrinsically mean more to me than films, with very few exceptions. Perhaps its a personal thing. In any case, on a practical level, what this means is that I will always try to read the book before I see the film.


Which brings me to latter-day Melbourne resident Li Cunxin’s memoir, Mao’s Last Dancer, and Australian director Bruce Beresford’s film, released in October last year. The reason why I didn’t manage to see this film at the cinema was that I was still getting through the book at the time. Seven months on, and the book is well finished, and I’ve just seen the film on DVD.

And the verdict? Well I did like the book, but I’m not sure I loved it. It certainly is an amazing story, and well worth reading depending on just how many similar “genre” books you have read and indeed your interest in dance. But in this case, seeing the film after the book was actually a bit revelatory! I wasn’t expecting much, because the film hadn’t garnered particularly glowing reviews, but it was a pretty solid little picture, with an emotional, fulfilling conclusion. You probably shouldn’t come to the film with hopes of deep characterisation or innovative storytelling, but you will leave it with a sense of satisfaction that you have just absorbed someone’s rather incredible story.

And if you haven’t read the book at that stage – you will definitely want to read the book afterwards.

P.S. Look for the Darling Street (Sydney) street sign in the second half of the film.