Mao’s Last Dancer
DIRECTOR: Bruce Beresford
CAST: Kyle McLachlan, Bruce Greenwood, Amanda Schull, Joan Chen, Chi Cao
RUNNING TIME: 114 minutes
Houston Business Journal – by Ford Gunter Reporter –
Nearly 30 years ago, Chinese ballet dancer Li Cunxin and Houston attorney Charles Foster were at the center of a politically charged international controversy. This weekend, their story comes alive again in a feature film making its U.S. debut at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
A 1981 incident at the Chinese Consulate on Montrose Boulevard made international headlines after a ballet dancer and his attorney announced the dancer’s intention to defect. Almost three decades later, the principal figures in that ordeal — Li Cunxin and Houston attorney Charles Foster — will reunite in Houston this week for the U.S. premier of “Mao’s Last Dancer,” a feature film based on Li’s autobiography.
Directed by Bruce Beresford (“Driving Miss Daisy,”) the film tells the story of Li as a young man rising through the Chinese ballet academies, his exchange program with the Houston Ballet starting in 1979, and his decision to defect in 1981. A decision that led to his detainment at the consulate for 21 hours, where he was grilled intensely and feared for his life.
During recent interviews, the two people at the center of the story recalled the intimate details of the real-life drama as if it happened a week ago, and are thrilled and relieved that the celluloid version is equally poignant. The film will be screened July 31 at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
“I was held on the third floor, locked in a small room being endlessly interrogated,” Li says, speaking from his home in Melbourne, Australia. “Every half-hour, somebody new was coming in trying to persuade me to come back to China (saying) ‘If you don’t agree, we’ll kill you.’ ”
Attorney Foster, who is portrayed in the film by “Sex and the City” actor Kyle McLachlan, first met Li several months before, after the dancer had decided to defect and had fallen in love with Elizabeth Mackey, an American dancer he planned to marry. Li confided his intentions to a close friend outside the ballet world, and together they contacted The University of Texas law school to find an attorney in Houston. They met in Foster’s office.
“Li was smart enough to know it was going to set off a huge reaction on the part of the Chinese,” Foster recalls. “Li was at the top of the pyramid toward the end of the Cultural Revolution; he had been selected and trained as a secret weapon to compete with the Russians. He was the first person sent over (to the United States) to represent China.”
Foster discouraged the dancer from applying for political asylum because it involves breaking all ties with the home country — something he felt Li did not want to do — and would likely be viewed as a great insult by China.
Instead, they focused on how he could qualify for employment in the U.S. through his job skills, which is the preferred method for artists, performers and athletes. A few months later, word leaked back to the Chinese that Li was planning on staying, and the government accused the Houston Ballet of kidnapping.
“As a compromise, Li agreed to take all responsibility and say that no one made him stay,” Foster says.
Good friends at this point, Li and Foster met at their favorite Chinese restaurant and agreed to go to the consulate. The night before, Li and Mackey had married.
“I tell him, before we go in, when we walk in that door we’re technically on the soil of China,” Foster recalls. “He said, ‘Can you keep me in the U.S.?’ I said yes, with some reservation. I felt confident all the cards were in our hands. The one thing I didn’t think about is that five guys would charge in and grab Li and beat him up and knock him down and drag him out of the room.”
Before the detainment, Foster says, negotiations had been going nowhere. After Li was removed, Foster was invited to another room for a more circular discussion.
Meanwhile, Li was due at a white-tie party hosted by Louisa Sarofim and his absence had been noticed.
“By early morning it became clear that they were going to take him to the airport and put him on a plane and take him back to China,” Foster says. “The press were covering the (Sarofim) party, so they showed up outside. By three or four in the morning, it was clear these society reporters were not going to miss the chance to be on the front page, above the fold, with a bold headline.”
At 8 a.m., when the bundle of Houston Post newspapers was delivered to the consulate with those screaming headlines, Foster left to file for a restraining order.
Li, meanwhile, was giving up hope.
“Officials told me halfway through, ‘Your so-called friends have all left. You are totally alone. You have no one left but us’,” Li recalls. “I sort of believed them.”
Around the time Foster returned with the restraining order, the national media had arrived en masse, diplomats from both nations were entrenched and the Federal Bureau of Investigation had the building surrounded. Negotiations dragged on for another 12 hours, but the Chinese eventually caved, after a last-ditch appeal.
“After 21 hours, only at the very last minute, the main consulate came in,” Li says. “I thought they were going to take me away and shoot me. He asked me one last time to return to China and I said no. Then he said, ‘Look, we now have the Chinese government’s permission to release you. From now on you are totally alone. You are a man without a country’.” …… (more details: Li Cunxin’s ballet dance with the devil – Houston Business Journal)