Veering from his historical dramas like the 1993 arthouse hit Farewell My Concubine and the little seen erotic thriller Killing Me Softly, master Chinese filmmaker Chen Kaige offers a classy sentimental drama about the challenges of parental love and a kid's determination to be a great musician.
While Together offers a not-so-subtle commentary about changing China and the ever-increasing capitalist impulses, it is never pedantic. It remains an entertaining, heartfelt film through its nearly two-hour run, though some viewers will certainly dismiss Together as a sentimental, feel-good film.
But Kaige first deals with several complex issues about adolescent angst and a quest for identity. Given the heartfelt performances by most of the cast (especially Tang Yun), the beautiful visuals and the enchanting music, it is not easy to resist this film.
Kaige mentions in the press notes that the film means a lot to him because, as a young boy, he was so overwhelmed by the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s that he denounced his father, a film director. The interesting bond between the father and the son in the film was carefully thought out by the director and his co-writer. The film was also co-produced by Chen Hong, who plays the sultry party girl.
One of the biggest hits at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, Together prompted a bidding battle among major arthouse distributors, including Miramax. United Artists, the winner, released the film on May 30 in New York and Los Angeles. It is steadily expanding its run across the country.
The film begins with Xiaochun (Tang Yun), a young boy with a great love for the violin. His devoted father Liu Cheng (Liu Peiqi) brings him to the big city. The father, who works in a restaurant, is prepared to make big sacrifices -- he wants to see his son as a nationally recognised musician. Liu could be too trusting, too naïve, but this little-educated man is certain that Xiaochun has a great future.
When Xiaochun cannot gain admission at a prestigious academy, the father goes to a great extent to persuade a demanding, eccentric and reclusive music teacher (Wang Zhiwen) to train his son.
Soon, the father comes to know of the well-known Professor Yu (Chen Kaige), a famous musician who offers to take the boy into his home.
Xiaochun does not always appreciate his father's plans, for he had bonded well with his previous teacher and his neighbour Lili, the party girl who loves him. Inadvertently but predictably, she also awakens his passions. This relationship is one of the film's weak points; so is the ending that tries to pack in a few surprises.
More interesting than the relationship between the boy and the party girl with the golden heart is the relationship between the eccentric and stern teacher (Wang Zhiwen) and the boy.
Peiqi as the boy's father is often loud and too sentimental; but Zhiwen is more appealing because we get to understand him slowly. We learn that behind his tough exterior, he has a soft heart.
Hong, the director's wife, is a delight as the boy's colourful and feisty neighbour. Yun makes us believe in his character's ambition. He also brings out the playfulness of a 13-year-old boy and the anxiety, fear and excitement of experiencing his first sexual encounter well.
These sterling performances, along with the enchanting music and crisp visuals, save Together from becoming a routine mushy melodrama.
Cast: Chen Hong, Tang Yun, Liu Peigi, Cheng Qian
Producers: Chen Hong, Chen Kaige, Yang Buting, Yan Xiaoming, Li Bolun, Joo-ik Lee
Director: Chen Kaige
Script: Chen Kaige, Xue Xiao Lu
Distributor: United Artists