I used to think innocently that art and politics belong to totally separate realms. I admired Mozart’s music for its purity of individual creativity that makes it timeless. I cannot imagine Mozart’s brilliant concertos known as something other than Mozart’s concertos. No political ideologies could have changed the very essence of Mozart (i.e. his own genius). A humanity class I took have taught me that if an artistic activity or creation (e.g. dance, music, painting, writing, films, etc) has a purpose that is something other than the individual mind of the artist, it becomes somewhat difficult to call it an ‘art.’
When you see the finally-approved ballet scene in Mao’s Last Dancer (2009), you can hardly call it an artistic performance. Honestly, I have seen many documentaries on Mao’s China where every sense, emotion and intellect in the country singularly pursued Mao’s revolutionary spirit, and the film offers hardly a little more than that. The contrast depicted in the film between the two worlds with irreconcilably different approaches to ballet (Communist China and Capitalist America) seemed to have avoided serious in-depth analysis, which is understandable for a purely western director. The relationship between art and politics is also exploited in the film Le Concerto (2009) by Radu Mihaileanu who had instilled the film with the sentiments under repressive political regime he personally witnessed. In Mao’s Last Dancer, the real Li Cunxin is felt like somewhat distant from the filmmakers, but the personal story of Li Cunxin alone delivers powerful reassurance to the values and beliefs that allowed us the freedom to appreciate art as itself.
The theme of Mao’s Last Dancer definitely addresses something in the changing world. I wouldn’t call it coincidental that two international films made in the same year from other parts of the world convey similarly telling stories of the ‘other world’ in the perspective of the passion of an artist.