Fifty-one-year-old director Chen Kaige was a teen laborer and Chinese soldier during the upheaval and suppression of the Cultural Revolution. He denounced his own filmmaker father to the Red Guard—an action that is still a source of personal anguish because it caused his father to serve several years in hard labor. Chen went on to study film himself and later reconciled with his father, even hiring him as artistic director of his visually staggering 1993 film, Farewell My Concubine, which chronicled 50 years of growing pains for China, the Peking Opera and two male stars of the celebrated theater troupe.
After making such ravishing sagas as Temptress Moon and The Emperor and the Assassin, Chen returns to a story of growing pains with Together. This sentimental, nearly sugary tale is also a very personal return for Chen to a fractured father-son relationship. It’s an allegorical story about family commitment, pride, missed opportunity, self-sacrifice and the power of music. Old and new attitudes and values clash, and fame and fortune loom as not only rewards but also roadblocks to consummate musicianship in which feeling and technical proficiency must blend seamlessly.
Liu Cheng (Liu Peiqi) is a provincial cook who decides his son, 13-year-old violin prodigy Xiao Chun (Tang Yun), should audition for a prestigious music school in Beijing. The father hides his savings in his red peasant’s hat, and they set off for the big city. Chun plays extraordinarily well but fails to make the academic cut because of favoritism for the siblings of yen-fisted school benefactors.
Such a blatant graft surprises but doesn’t discourage bumpkin Cheng. He convinces the slovenly Professor Jiang (Wang Zhiwen) to take Chun under his wing. Jiang lives amid a littered house with dirty clothes and several stray cats and wallows in a symphony of self-pity that gushes from memories of a broken romance. He polishes Chun’s potential while his student instructs him about personal hygiene (“You smell worse than your house pets,” says Chun).
Soon, Cheng realizes his son needs a more prominent teacher to succeed. He enlists the services of another professor (played by Chen) with a better track record but a colder heart. Chun, meanwhile, has become infatuated with the attractive neighbor Lili (Chen Kaige’s real-life wife, Chen Hong) who uses him as a sort of servant sidekick while dating a dashing gigolo, and Chun eventually must decide what price he is willing to pay for the rapture of both puppy love and professional glory.
Together is a story of contrast. Beijing is an urban magnet for fortune seekers in which it is easier to find a bride than housing. NBA games are broadcast on home TVs while chickens are slaughtered in open-air markets. People use cell phones in the streets while others relieve themselves at home in pots because of the lack of indoor plumbing. Ambition and marketing rival an old-school sense of family and self-worth, and the sterility and isolation embodied in material success seem to benumb and even sever ties to community and humanity.
Tang is an actual violinist. His musical performances and the film’s score are moving. His portrayal of a kid who lost his mother at age 2 and has played her violin ever since is more tolerable than involving. The film paints him as a lad who succumbs to the mysterious pull of puberty by pasting pictures of pretty women in his sheet music and who asks those around him to admit their mistakes though he won’t freely admit his own. But Tang never really crawls into the skin of his character.
Liu feels more like a caricature at times as the peasant with unflagging drive and optimism, and the role of Lili is a poorly written mess in a subplot teeming with coincidence and jagged leaps. Wang delivers the most embraceable performance as the untidy purveyor of the arts who asks only three things from his talented charge: “work hard, enjoy playing and don’t play only when you’re thinking of your mom.”
“Music without feeling is like a gun without a bullet,” says Together. The film is cocked and loaded, but unfortunately, it misfires on a couple of cylinders.