On the stage, China-born ballet dancer Chi Cao has supreme confidence. Nerves are seldom a problem for the principal performer of the Birmingham Royal Ballet.
However, on the first day he was on the set of Mao’s Last Dancer, Australian director Bruce Beresford’s big-screen adaptation of Li Cunxin’s best-selling autobiography of the same name, Chi was an uncharacteristic bundle of nerves.
Stepping out of a car for one of his first encounters with a movie camera, Chi froze.
“I just completely ‘blacked out’ and didn’t know what I was supposed to say,” Chi recalled during a media junket in Singapore on 14 April, to promote the film opening the 23rd Singapore International Film Festival the following day.
The film, described as “an extreme example of the rags-to-riches story” by its Oscar-nominated director, whose works include Tender Mercies (1983), Driving Miss Daisy (1989) and Paradise Road (1997), also commences a theatrical run here on 22 April.
In making the film, Beresford has brought to cinematic life an extraordinary journey from abject poverty in China to a settled life of prosperity in Australia, where Li and his family now live.
In between China and Australia, there were vivid dramatic moments such as Li’s decision to stay in the United States via a surprise marriage, and the international incident that followed, resulting in his forced defection from Communist China to the United States.
In so doing, Beresford has also unearthed an enticing acting newcomer in Chi.
Chi, who knew Li’s eventful life story more intimately than some – his parents had taught Li at the Beijing Dance Academy, where Chi later trained – had gotten the role on the back of Li’s recommendation to the filmmakers.
Still, despite his familiarity with Li, Chi didn’t really believe the film marking his acting debut would actually happen.
“I didn’t really get nervous until I went on set, because I never believed that it (playing Li) could happen. We (dancers) all knew his story because we came from the same school. The idea of making this book, his life story, into a film, for me was surreal.”
“The more acting lessons I had, the more nervous I got, because for years, I’d never felt so ‘useless’. I had always been on top of my game, dancing, so that was really quite nerve-wracking.”
Most ‘terrifying’ was Chi’s first scene with Joan Chen, who played Li’s mother in the film.
“The first scene I ever had to do was with Joan and I was really, really scared, because I didn’t know how she was going to react if I didn’t deliver my line right – she might freak out! What was I going to do then; there were over 200 people there.”
Fortunately, things went well, and Chen turned out to be “very, very good-natured and very professional,” said Beresford.
Making the film, which also stars notable actors Bruce Beresford and Kyle MacLachlan alongside Chen and has a script by Shine screenwriter Jan Sardi, has proven to be a gratifying experience for the director.
“It was fascinating for me to contrast two societies and to do something with someone with an Asian background. The usual rags-to-riches stories don’t cross such cultural barriers.
“(What’s more) it’s true. I mean, if you made it up, nobody would believe it. I always worry if I’m doing it properly; I think ‘Am I messing this up?’ and I really just try to tell the story as simply as possible. It was tricky.”
In all, it took Beresford and his crew three months to shoot the film, across three continents. If you asked him, he would say it was all worth it.
“I think it’s a very good hearted, good natured film, and it’s got a triumphant ending. It’s nice to make a film that’s basically optimistic and sees good things in people, all people, the Chinese people and the American people and everyone who was involved.
“It was nice to make an optimistic film that’s honest – there’s nothing fake about it. Audiences respond to the good nature of it.”
The other upside of the film, apart from sharing Li’s story – and his considerable dance talents, portrayed with aplomb by Chi – with the world, is Chi’s emergence as an actor.
Asked if he would continue acting, Chi expressed interest – in the future, and maybe with more confidence to boot.
“I really enjoy dancing still, but maybe when I’m finishing, when I retire from dancing, and if there are opportunities, I will consider them.”