There’s a quaint, almost anachronistically genteel quality to this new film by Chen Kaige, maker of such opulent period epics as “Farewell My Concubine” and “The Emperor and the Assassin.” Though contemporary in narrative and relatively small in scale, “Together” is still visually sumptuous, shot in a gauzy, haze-shrouded ambiance that gives a luminous halo to the images. More important, the story it tells–of an impecunious peasant who brings his thirteen-year old son to Beijing to further what he hopes will be the boy’s brilliant career as a violinist–is very old fashioned, too. (One major character is even a prostitute with a heart of gold.) One could make a parlor game of imagining who might have been cast in a Hollywood version of the tale during the studio heyday of the 1940s. (I see a gender-altered version making the kid a singer rather than an instrumentalist. It would have been a perfect vehicle for Deanna Durbin, with maybe Anne Southern or Rosalind Russell as the parent, and as the music teachers–one nice, the other stern–perhaps the lovable Barry Fitzgerald and the rigid Adolphe Menjou. The fellow who befriends her–rather than a worldly woman as here–would have to have been played by somebody unthreatening, like John Payne or Fred MacMurray.)
But if one is willing to swallow the strongly sentimentalist streak–something that’s quite understandable in view of the writer-director’s own experiences, which included a furtive dalliance with western classical music during the time of the Cultural Revolution and a denunciation of his father to the authorities–“Together” proves an affecting and even beautiful film, stronger in its first half than the second but as a whole very moving, and dramatizing the dark side of China’s current rush toward capitalism and materialism. The old values (not communistic, but communal and especially familial) are represented by the lovable peasant Liu Cheng (Liu Peiqi), a cook in the Shanghai region who brings his son Liu Xiaochun (Tang Yun), a violin prodigy, to the capital to compete for a place in the prestigious national music school. Though he’s clearly the most talented competitor, money decides the choices, and if the pair are to be allowed to remain in Beijing, they must secure a private teacher for the boy. Eventually Cheng persuades the untidy, amusingly eccentric Professor Jiang (Wang Zhiwen) to accept the job. Some of the most charming segments of the film involve the interplay between Xiaochun and Jiang, whose petulance is exceeded only by his solicitude for his many cats. While the father takes on menial jobs to support them, Xiaochun becomes emotionally drawn to Lili (Chen Hong), a sprightly hooker who lives nearby, and to purchase a present for her he pawns his cherished violin. Eventually a spat between the boy and Jiang leads Cheng to seek a new teacher for Xiaochun–Professor Yu Shifeng (director Kaige), a stern, results-oriented sort. The film’s last act centers on the preparation for a major competition in which Shifeng pits the boy against another pupil for placement and Xiaochun must choose between continuing his studies in Beijing or returning home with his father. A surprise revelation demonstrates that Cheng’s sacrifice for Xiaochun was even greater than already suggested.
The more intimate elements of the picture–the relationship between father and son, and that between Xiaochun and Jiang–are melodramatic, to be sure, but also effective. Tang, who encapsulates Xiaochun’s quiet, withdrawn personality splendidly, plays beautifully against the comically agitated Peiqi, the very image of the anxious-to-please bumpkin, and Zhiwen, who’s perfect as the distracted has-been. Unhappily, the turns that the narrative takes involving Kaige himself and his wife Hong are less successful. One can understand why Lili and Shifeng are essential to the writer-director’s purposes: he represents a more modern, assembly-line approach to music (although he supposedly prizes Xiaochun’s playing because it has “heart”), and she the modern China’s obsession with wealth and fine living (although, in the end, she comes through for the father and son). But though Hong has great energy, she never makes Lili’s stridency as poignantly amusing as is intended (Holly Golightly she’s not), and Kaige’s stiffness and reserve are simply stolid. When they replace Zhiwen’s Jiang at the center of the story’s Beijing side, the film suffers.
Still, Kaige recovers at the end by constructing a visually elaborate, emotionally uplifting finale set to the soaring strains of the Tchaikovsky violin concerto. From a purely objective standpoint, it’s an extraordinarily manipulative and saccharine conclusion, all too obviously calculated to induce viewers to reach for their tissues. But on its rankly sentimental terms, it’s expertly done–just like the finales of those glossy tearjerkers that the U.S. studios were once so good at churning out. “Together” is corny, but it’s mostly flavorful corn, and one feels it really comes from the heart.