Chinese director Chen Kaige has made indelible impressions in the West with films like Farewell My Concubine and The Emperor and the Assassin, large-scale productions that set well-realized personal dramas against epic historical backgrounds. Together, while elegantly filmed, has shrunk its perspective to present day China and an intimate story. It centers on 13 year old Xiaochun, a gifted violinist whose father brings him from their home village to Beijing in search of a good teacher, fame and fortune. It’s the sort of story that might be expected to end up with a triumphant concert scene and it does, but Chen is not one to deliver gratuitous cliches. His finale (not to be disclosed here) has an unexpected, but fully justified twist.
Young Xiaochun (Yun Tang) doesn’t get a whole lot to say in Together, though he’s on screen nearly the entire time. Presumably his shy inarticulateness is in inverse proportion to the expressiveness of his music making–and the classical music on the soundtrack is a great pleasure of the film. But Chun is a good listener and shrewdly observant. He has a catalytic effect on the people around him, particularly his first Beijing teacher, Professor Jiang (Zhiwen Wang), a reclusive depressive who gave up on life when he lost out on his first love. Chun, who is at the stage of adolescence when women and sex have become irresistibly fascinating, also befriends Lili (Hong Chen), a call girl who lives nearby.
Chun’s father, Liu Cheng (Peiqi Liu), is utterly devoted to his son and his son’s career. He’s well meaning, obsequious, clumsy and provincial, but he’s no fool. When he learns that the big competitions are won on the basis of influence rather than on the basis of the greatest talent, he inveigles a teacher of greater standing to take on his son as a student. Cheng carries a secret from the past, unknown to Chun, which provides an added fillip to the story.
Together is a film that constantly teeters between drama and soap opera, between meaningful characterization and caricature, but it consistently lands on the right side of the fence because it is handled with lightness and delicacy. There’s just enough that’s fresh and unexpected to keep the characters from crumbling into cliche. Cheng is almost a stock country bumpkin, but his unconditional love for his son deepens the character and makes him genuinely sympathetic. Lili, the classic hooker with a heart of gold, is changed by Chun’s friendship into a more humanized character.
A few, brief early scenes in the country town are a reminder of director Chen’s skills at creating a sense of place, but once the location changes to Beijing, that sense is, for the most part, lost and missed. Chen stays focused on his story which could be happening in any big city.
Indeed, the entire film might be seen as Chen Light. The plot is not particularly interesting;the secret is not so crucial to the outcome as to be a pivotal plot point. And the characterizations are light as well, but touched ever so gently with warmth and details of observed behaviors. It doesn’t quite plumb the emotional depths for which its conclusion aims, but it charms nonetheless. Together is a minor work by a major filmmaker.