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"Mao's Last Dancer"
Chengwu Guo in "Mao's Last Dancer." Simon Cardwell / Samuel Goldwyn Films

You know you're watching a period piece when a visitor from China is awed by American skyscrapers and consumer goods. But in the 1970s, the communist giant was cloistered behind the Great Wall, and only a privileged few Chinese were allowed to visit the West and compare it with the propaganda warnings about a lawless jungle.

One of those visitors was ballet prodigy Li Cunxin, whose autobiography is the basis of "Mao's Last Dancer." Part performance showcase and part political soap opera, it's an up-and-down experience, but the superb dancing is worth the turgid drama.

In the early '70s, Chairman Mao Zedong's wife hatches a plan to combine classical Russian ballet with Red Army sloganeering. Because of his flexible body type, 11-year-old Li is plucked from a Chinese village and sent to a ballet training academy in Beijing. Three actors portray the clumsy-but-limber Li in the years of his arduous training, when he is pulled between a teacher who's inspired by Mao and another who's inspired by bootleg videos of Mikhail Baryshnikov.

After Mao dies and the gates of the nation creak open, the academy is visited by a delegation from the Houston Ballet, led by flamboyant, fur-coated Ben Stevenson (Bruce Greenwood). As a reward for his perseverance, if not his political purity, 18-year-old Li (Cao Chi) is permitted to study in America.

Australian director Bruce Beresford ("Driving Miss Daisy") handles the culture-clash aspects of the story with a surprising lack of subtlety. This America consists of glittering shopping malls and cowboy-hatted backslappers.

When the grim bureaucrats at the Chinese Embassy order Li to return home, he insists he'd rather marry a struggling ballerina named Elizabeth (Amanda Schull), which sparks an international incident.

Although Li dances in Houston for the next 16 years, that period is compressed into little more than a puzzling fight over Elizabeth's housekeeping, an abrupt second marriage and a heart-tugging public reunion with estranged loved ones. It's as simplified a fairy tale as "Swan Lake," yet because it elevates a Chinese character to the world stage, "Mao's Last Dancer" mimics the next step in our cultural evolution.