Li Cunxin is one of the most talented ballet stars ever to emerge from China, but his biggest claim to fame happened far away from the stage.
In 1981 while a resident at the Houston Ballet, Li defected to the United States in an incident that involved a 21-hour standoff at the Chinese consulate and negotiations that ultimately led to the dancer's safe release.
This week, a movie based on Li's life opens in Los Angeles and other select cities. In a parallel to its protagonist's travails, the production experienced its own friction with the Chinese government that forced the filmmakers to shoot significant parts of the movie in secret.
"Mao's Last Dancer" follows Li's story from his impoverished childhood to his triumph on the international stage. Based on Li's memoirs, the Australian film, directed by Bruce Beresford, is a biopic of the inspirational variety that focuses on its hero's emotional and professional journey.
Though most of the movie's interior scenes were filmed in Australia, the filmmakers wanted to shoot certain sequences, including scenes from Li's childhood, on location in China.
For foreign film shoots, a permit is needed from the Chinese government to bring in cast and crew and to take negatives out of the country. "Mao's" producer Jane Scott said she approached the Film Bureau in Beijing over a number of years in the hopes of obtaining a permit. But the bureau rejected the application just as production on the movie was getting underway. Scott said she immediately re-applied, but her second effort also was refused.
The crew ended up filming secretly in China for about a month in rural areas and other locations close to Beijing.
"I made sure that only a handful of people on the production knew we had difficulties," said Scott by e-mail.
To compound matters, filming took place in the first half of 2008, a politically intense time in China as the government was putting on its best face for the Summer Olympic Games while also cracking down on an uprising in Tibet.
In the past, Western films that dealt with politically sensitive aspects of Chinese politics have managed to avoid Beijing censors by shooting outside of China.
"Kundun," Martin Scorsese's biopic of the Dalai Lama, used Morocco as a stand-in for Tibet, while the similarly themed "Seven Years in Tibet" was shot largely in Argentina. "Red Corner," a thriller starring Richard Gere, used a back lot in L.A. to re-create Chinese locations.
For the makers of "Mao's Last Dancer," shooting in rural China was a necessity. "I didn't have an alternative location, and it's not easy re-creating China elsewhere," said Scott. "You can imagine, I was incredibly relieved when I flew out with our team having shot all the sequences we needed for the film."
"Mao's Last Dancer" isn't an overtly political movie, but it contains scenes that portray China's Communist Party in a less-than-flattering light.
The sequence of Li's defection at the consulate in Houston depicts Chinese officials as thugs with little regard for human rights or international law. Li, 20 at the time, had hastily married Elizabeth Mackey, an ensemble dancer at the Houston Ballet, to facilitate becoming a U.S. resident.
The following day, Li presented himself at the consulate to declare his intention to defect, but officials imprisoned him and threatened his life. He was eventually released after 21 hours because of pressure from his legal team and global media coverage of the event.
Li, now 49 and retired from ballet, said he views his decision to announce his defection at the consulate as a bit naive, though he doesn't regret his actions.
"If I hadn't done it, then I would live a life forever wondering if I had the courage to follow my convictions," he said on the phone from Melbourne, Australia, where he resides.
The dancer continued his career with the Houston Ballet until 1995, under the guidance of then-artistic director Ben Stevenson. Li's marriage to his first wife ended in 1987, and he eventually married Mary McKendry, a dancer and native Australian, with whom he now has three children.
Li, who holds American and Australian citizenships, works as a manager in an investment firm and also travels the world as a motivational speaker. "My relationship with China gradually improved as the country opened up. So I have been going back and forth quite often," he said.
In the movie, Li is played as an adult by the Chinese British ballet performer Chi Cao, whose father taught Li at the Beijing Dance Academy. Neither dancer has had problems traveling back to China as a result of working on the film.
Charles Foster, the Houston lawyer who was instrumental in getting Li out of detention in 1981, remains friends with the dancer. (Both provided input for the screenplay by Jan Sardi.) In 1993, Foster helped another dancer from a communist country — Carlos Acosta of the National Ballet of Cuba — to obtain residency in the U.S.
"Each of these cases is unique," Foster said. "It's not just fear that their families back home could be subjected to punishment. It's about how the dancers can recover enough to do their work."
"Mao's Last Dancer" doesn't have a Chinese distributor, and it appears unlikely it will be released in China, according to Scott, the film's producer.
"I hear that pirated DVDs are available on the street," she added. "But they would have been downloaded off the 'Net."