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Magic moment

Mike Gordon
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Amanda Schull and Chi Chao star as Chinese ballet star Li Cunxin and the woman he loved.

The first time Amanda Schull saw herself in "Mao’s Last Dancer," the Nuuanu ballerina-turned-actress was sitting in an audience at the Toronto International Film Festival, cringing slightly as she dissected her performance.

Other than a starring role in the 2000 film "Center Stage," most of Schull’s work has been on television, and the screen in the Canadian city’s ornate Winter Garden Theatre seemed enormous.

"Watching yourself on a movie screen can be pretty rough," she said in a phone call from San Francisco. "Everything is exaggerated."

Plus, this was a discerning festival audience.

"Everybody was there to judge. We were literally at a competition. To have that be the first time to see the film — that’s intense."

But never underestimate a powerful story. In "Mao’s Last Dancer," based on the autobiography of former Chinese dancer Li Cunxin, who defected to the West in 1981, love and courage trump flaws in body language.

When the closing credits rolled at the festival last September, the validation began. Whether that happens again tonight when the film screens in select theaters nationwide, including the Kahala 8, remains to be seen. But that night in Toronto is a powerful memory for Schull, who played Li’s first love, Elizabeth.

"It was a really electric night," Schull said. "The audience literally leapt to their feet. Everyone turned to Li and gave him a 20-minute standing ovation."

The film’s story moved everyone to tears, even Schull, who said she broke into "an ugly cry." She had read the autobiography and memorized the movie script, but to see it all on screen intensified the saga.

"I came away from it with a much deeper respect for Li," she said. "It was so beautiful to see it on film and see this elegant man standing next to me."

The film sold out four more times and was the runner-up to "Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire" for the People’s Choice Award in Toronto.

Li was 11 when the regime of Communist dictator Mao Zedong took him from his rural home to become a dancer. He ultimately became one of the best dancers China ever produced, and at 19 was allowed to dance with the Houston Ballet.

In Houston, Li met Elizabeth. His decision to defect for her led to a tense standoff between Chinese officials and the FBI that also involved President George H.W. Bush.

A Great Scott Production, "Mao’s Last Dancer" also stars Bruce Greenwood, Kyle MacLachlan, Joan Chen and Chi Chao as Li. It was directed by Australian Bruce Beresford, who was twice nominated for an Oscar (1980’s "Breaker Morant" and 1983’s "Tender Mercies").

Beresford wanted a trained dancer for the part of Elizabeth. Schull was perfect, Beresford said in an e-mail.

A former professional dancer with the San Francisco Ballet, Schull retired from dance in 2006, turning to acting full time. But she couldn’t attend Beresford’s auditions for the film.

"I had more or less settled on another girl when a tape arrived from Amanda," he said. "She played out a scene from the film with such total naturalness and unforced charm that I insisted on casting her without a meeting."

"Mao’s Last Dancer" made its Hawaii debut in April at the Hawaii International Film Festival’s Spring Showcase. It was screened once and the audience, filled with young dancers, loved Schull, said Chuck Boller, the festival’s executive director.

"People here were waiting for it because of Amanda," he said. "It was difficult not to shed a tear looking into the audience at all these young dancers being inspired by Amanda."

The 31-year-old Schull, who has recurring roles on TV’s "Pretty Little Liars" and "One Tree Hill," said Elizabeth and Li, who is now retired and living in Australia, shared a relationship made precious by the choices they were forced to make. That their diverging careers ultimately ended their marriage gives the story a tragic undercurrent.

"It was quintessential first love — everything beautiful about it and everything heartbreaking about it," Schull said. "It is a beautiful story for the two of them."


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