TOGETHER (He ni zai yi qi)

(director/writer: Chen Kaige; screenwriter: Xue Xiaolu; cinematographers: Jiongqiu Jin/Hyung-ku Kim; editor: Ying Zhou; music: Zhao Ling; cast: Tang Yun (Liu Xiaochun), Liu Peigi (Liu Cheng), Chen Hong (Lili), Wang Zhiwen (Prof. Jiang), Chen Kiage (Prof. Yu Shifeng), Qing Zhang (Lin Yu); Runtime: 117; MPAA Rating: PG; producers: Chen Kiage/Chen Hong/Li Bolun/Yan Xiaoming/Yang Buting/Lee Joo-ik; United Artists; 2002-China/South Korea, in Mandarin with English subtitles)

“Reeks of sentimentality and mawkish characterizations.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Chen Kiage (“Yellow Earth”/”Farewell My Concubine”/”The Emperor and the Assassin”) who is known for his historical dramas, directs and cowrites this coming-of-age melodrama that takes place in modern-day Beijing. The soap opera-like story reeks of sentimentality and mawkish characterizations, as it faces off traditional values of the family and hard work for the love of one’s art against the evils of Western consumerism. Corrupted by materialism are a loose living lady with a heart of gold and an acclaimed violin teacher, with suspect motivations. Opposed to this corruption of wealth is an impoverished father who wants only success for his son through old-fashioned hard work. Chen comes up with a predictable populist formulaic tale that is drained of suspense and is filled with clichés, and is all too familiar looking though the scenery is foreign. There’s not a bit of doubt how this weepy tale will end. Also the acting lacked any range of emotions and seemed for the most part wooden, while the banal dialogue was hardly memorable.

Xiaochun (real-life violin prodigy Tang Yun Tang Yun–no dubbed playing here) is a 13-year-old violin prodigy who lives with his peasant father, Liu Cheng (Liu Peig), in an unnamed provincial Chinese city. He’s a thoughtful youngster who was told his mother abandoned him at 2 and that he was destined to play the violin. Music is his best way of expressing his strong feelings. His country bumpkin father works at odd jobs to see that his son is provided for, as his world revolves only around his son and he’s willing to make the sacrifices to see that his son will have a good life.

The father decides he must take his son to Beijing to get any recognition, so he departs by boat with his life savings hidden in his stocking cap to get the right teacher (you can guess the money will be stolen if you are familiar with predictable pics like this one). When he tries to get his son into a prestigious conservatory, he’s rejected because his father does not have a Beijing residence permit even though he actually wins the audition competition (though placed fifth because of the corrupt officials). It’s also learned in secret that he’s rejected because he’s not connected. Not deterred dad finds a reclusive, asocial, grouchy, disheveled, bachelor, cat loving teacher Professor Jiang (Wang Zhiwen), who is a good teacher but has no musical connections and lives in a pigsty.

The kid is attracted to a sexy gold-digger named Lili (Chen Hong- director’s actress-wife) whom he first meets at the train station and later meets again when he moves in near Jiang’s place. Strangely, there’s at no time any sexual tension between the two. The temperamental whore pays him to soothe her nerves by playing the violin, and the two become like brother and sister. Meanwhile dad works long hours at multiple jobs to support them, and when he makes a delivery to a musical hall recital he becomes impressed with Professor Yu Shifeng (Chen Kiage–the director) as a big-time violin teacher who has the connections and savvy to help his son achieve acclaim. He drops the bohemian teacher in a flash and kisses the feet of the respected and well-dressed bourgeois professor to accept his child. But this switching of teachers doesn’t sit well with the son, who in an act of rebellion sells his violin to buy an expensive coat Lili expressed an interest in. When the father tries to retrieve it, it’s learned that one of Lili’s unreliable dates told her the gift was from him and he sold the coat to give her the money but instead vanished. This plot device made little sense as to why the kid would leave the gift with this untrustworthy playboy and without even a card.

It all leads to Xiaochun re-evaluating his young life to find out who is real and who is a phony. The coat debacle warms the whore’s heart that any man could be so kind to her, so she becomes a real softy to the kid instead of treating him like dirt as before and gets concerned with helping him so that she can forgive herself for possibly ruining the future of a genius. Jiang teaches the kid to play from the heart, and does so to make up for his forlorn life and therefore assuage his past guilt. The kid in return teaches him to clean himself up and stop being a slob. Yu’s kindness is based on seeing how talented the kid is and that it would be another feather in his cap to introduce such a gifted musician to the Chinese musical world and thereby gain for himself even more recognition. The father has kept a burning secret about the child’s birth that tugs at the heart-strings, as the temporary break in their relationship is repaired when the son finds out the truth about his mother. Chen said in an interview that this father-son rupture is autobiographical, and it wasn’t until he became an adult that he reconciled with his father.

The film offers a look at how modern China is corrupted by the power of privilege, as playing to the public for approval is viewed as something cynical. At the same time, this film strives to be a real crowd-pleaser and do the opposite its theme is advocating. It is also a nostalgic look back to a time of the director’s own boyhood days of the Cultural Revolution when values were more community driven than is today’s ruthless world where most are out only for themselves (for some reason Western music is now approved, when in those glorious days it was banned). Unfortunately, the film seemed punchless and muddled in presenting its dubious aims. But the violin music is great.