- - Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Li Cunxin is the subject of one of the highest grossing Australian films of all time, but he never thought his story could become a movie. “I never wanted a movie, to be honest,” Mr. Li says in an interview. “Especially a movie based on [my] own life.”

But what a remarkable life it’s been.

Film audiences around the world have come to appreciate that personal journey after seeing 2009’s “Mao’s Last Dancer.” Directed by two-time Oscar nominee Bruce Beresford (“Tender Mercies” and “Breaker Morant”), the film adapts the story told in Mr. Li’s acclaimed autobiography.

A Chinese-born ballet dancer, Mr. Li came to the United States in the 1970s via the Houston Ballet, where he danced as part of an exchange program. He soon fell in love with the city’s arts community, a woman who would become his first wife and the freedom he enjoyed in America.

“Mao’s Last Dancer” depicts Mr. Li’s requests to extend his stay in the United States, denied by the communist government in Beijing. In 1981, he decided to defect and was held for 21 hours at the Chinese Consulate in Houston while American and Chinese officials negotiated. He eventually was released and allowed to stay in America, but his Chinese citizenship was revoked.

“Because of the quality of the film, I think it still has huge interest around the world,” says Mr. Li, who is on a national press tour promoting the movie, scheduled for U.S. release on DVD and Blu-ray on May 3. He appeared for a Q&A on Tuesday after a screening at the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring.

Mr. Li says the movie is popular in his native country, even though it is not one of the 20 foreign films officially allowed in annually by the Chinese government. “They really go through the pirated DVD channels” to watch it, he says. “I have heard it was a very popular pirated DVD on the streets of Shanghai, Beijing and other major cities.”

Media controls in China have tightened, said Mr. Li. “The Chinese government, if anything, has been very inconsistent about what films they will allow to be shown in China over the years,” he says. “I think in recent years it’s fair to say that the control has become tighter … not only in the film industry — what films to be filmed or exhibited in China — but also in the overall media.” Restrictions on Internet and mobile phone access, he says, also have been ramped up since the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Although Mr. Li defected from China, he says he faces no travel restrictions, mostly because he goes there on business or to visit his family. But political freedoms are another story.

“I think it’s fair to say that China [in terms of] travel and economic freedom is far more open than for, let’s say, political reform or media,” Mr. Li says.

Against the background of recent headlines from China, Mr. Li’s analysis couldn’t be timelier. Last week, the internationally known artist Ai Weiwei was arrested in Shanghai after forays into more overtly political criticism of the communist government. His arrest was part of a wider crackdown on political dissent. Mr. Li says he was initially surprised by the news but now wonders whether he should have been.

“I still have quite a lot of contacts with the ballet profession back in China, and my impression over the years is they are much more open, over the years, as far as imposing the political influence or control over artists in China,” Mr. Li says. “Maybe I just don’t know that whole situation as deeply as I thought I knew.”

In any case, Mr. Li says, this example and others of oppression by the communists ought to outrage everyone who believes in freedom. “I think it’s not just for artists, I think it’s not only to the intellectual community in China or around the world,” he says. “I think really the whole world should be against that kind of political suppression.”

Today, Mr. Li is remarried, lives in Melbourne, Australia, and has been able to make many visits to China to visit his family. He has retired from dancing and works as a stockbroker.

The film’s source memoir became an international best-seller in 2003, and it’s not difficult to see its cross-cultural appeal.

“My story is very much about the personal journey,” Mr. Li says, distilling its message down to “Overcome adversity” and “Never lose hope.”

He says the earliest talks about bringing his story to the silver screen date back to the period immediately after his defection. Three Hollywood directors came to him, but he declined. After his memoir became a huge hit, his story started to generate interest again in the movie industry.

“One day I got a surprise phone call from somebody I didn’t know, who was Jan Sardi, who is the screenplay writer for the film ‘Shine,’” Mr. Li recalls. “He said, ‘I would like to talk to you about a film project.’”

Producer Jane Scott, also of “Shine,” was soon on board, and the rest is cinematic history. Produced in Mr. Li’s adopted home of Australia, it was that country’s top-grossing movie in 2009. The September 2009 premiere at the Toronto Film Festival garnered “Mao’s Last Dancer” rave reviews, and the movie was distributed all over the world, including in 33 theaters in the United States.

“Mao’s Last Dancer,” Mr. Li says, offers an example of how freedom can foster greatness in all people, not just artists. He hopes it shows them how his chance to live in freedom gave him opportunities he could have never thought possible.

“I hope through my story, people really will realize that if you want to bring the best out of a person … it is about having total freedom,” Mr. Li says.

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