Grace, passion in a stirring dance

Lovely and astounding, "Mao's Last Dancer" is a modern epic of art and ambition triumphing oppression.

It is the story of ballet dancer Li Cunxin, born in a remote village in China under the communist regime, tested as a small child and taken off by strangers to be trained in ballet, all for the glory of Mao's revolution.

Afraid, alone and none too sure of his abilities, the young Li nevertheless perseveres and becomes a rising star in the political ballets approved by the government.

When relations between China and the U.S. thaw, after Mao's death, Li (ballet dancer Chi Cao) is sent for three months to study in Houston, under artistic director Ben Stevenson (a startlingly effete but effective Bruce Greenwood) in the early 1980s.

Once there, Li starts to realize that the propaganda he's been fed about America - in one class, he's told the U.S. is the world's most underdeveloped nation - is blatantly false. And when the ballet company's lead dancer is hurt, Li gets to fill in for him.

He wows the crowd - the dancing throughout the film is breathtaking - and moves from student to lead dancer.

At the same time, he begins a secret romance with an aspiring ballerina, Liz (Amanda Schull).

Veteran director Bruce Beresford ("Driving Miss Daisy") wisely has dancers from around the world playing the dancer roles, and Cao in particular handles his role nicely, moving from overwhelmed novice to star with both assurance and vulnerability.

The film stumbles a bit with some clumsy domestic discord toward the end, but recovers with an emotional finale.

Based on Li's autobiography, "Mao's Last Dancer" is a strong reminder of life's potential extraordinary turns, as well as fine evidence that grace, beauty and passion do indeed sometimes persevere.