A well-played, light family drama that references major historical and political issues beneath a low-key front, “Apart Together” continues a quality career course for mainland Chinese writer-director Wang Quanan (“Weaving Girl,” Berlin Golden Bear winner “Tuya’s Marriage”) without significantly advancing it or springing any surprises. Certainly the most modest Berlinale opener in recent memory, Wang’s fifth feature looks set for a solid fest run and some upscale niche business in Asian-friendly salles.
Referred to in the pic’s English title, but not in its original Chinese one (literally, “The Delegation Member”), the underlying Big Issue here is China-Taiwan reunification, over which the two sides have been squabbling for 60 years. Though politics are never referenced even through the allegory of divided lovers trying to reunite after more than half a century, Wang and co-writer Na Jin are already walking on eggshells.
While many nuances may escape most Western viewers (but not Chinese auds), the general story is easily accessible. It’s a tribute to present-day Chinese filmmaking that “Apart Together” managed to get made at all; the subject has been referenced in other productions but never as directly as it has here.
In 1987, some 20 years after the civil war won by the communists that sent the nationalists fleeing to Taiwan, an agreement was finally reached that allowed veterans to return to China once a year to visit relatives.
In the early 21st century (the exact time is never specified), Shanghaier Qiao Yu’e (Lisa Lu) receives a letter from the one-time love of her life, Liu Yansheng (Ling Feng), who half a century earlier had left her stranded when he fled as a nationalist soldier to Taiwan.
While apologizing for never contacting her in that time, Yan-sheng’s letter announces that, as his wife died three years ago and he’s now in the late autumn of his life, he is coming back to Shanghai as a member of a veterans delegation and hopes to see her.
The letter is read in front of the whole of Yu’e’s family, including her husband, Lu Shenmin (Xu Caigen), son Jianguo (Yu Baiyang), elder daughter Aihua (Ma Xiaoqing), younger daughter Xinhua (Jin Na) and granddaughter Nana (Monica Mok). Yansheng’s existence is no secret to the family, but initial reaction to his visit is mixed. Yu’e’s husband is surprisingly relaxed, whereas the children are more unsettled. “What if his wife hadn’t died?” asks one daughter.
After an uneasy welcoming meal at the family’s modest backstreet home, Yansheng is invited to stay at their house rather than in a hotel. He, Yu’e and Nana spend time seeing the modern sights of Shanghai, now virtually unrecognizable to Liu. He then privately reveals to Yu’e his true agenda: to take her with him back to Taiwan so they can enjoy the last years of their lives together in a house in Hualien.
To this point, there’s been a barely visible strain of humor in the nervous family relations and the whole shebang of “welcoming back” to the city he once fled. His proposal is hardly even questioned by Yu’e, and some Western auds may have an initial problem accepting the very practical way in which the proposition is discussed by them — and by the family as a whole — and is supported by, of all people, Yu’e’s husband.
The humor becomes briefly more explicit as unforeseen bureaucratic complications arise — already treated more satirically in Huang Jianxin’s 2001 “The Marriage Certificate” — before the initial low-key atmosphere returns.
Plot resolves itself in a way that’s both 100% Chinese and has resonances that could continue into the future, as young Nana (in a barely developed plot thread) also makes a major personal decision.
Though there are deep emotional currents supporting the central story, Wang adopts a typically restrained approach emphasized by regular German d.p. Lutz Reit-e-meier’s cool, late-winter lensing of steely Shanghai. Formal family meetings (largely shot in group master shots) stress the communal basis on which decisions have to be reached, and also the social formalities hiding personal feelings that rarely surface.
Though the story is, on the face of it, centered on Yansheng and Yu’e, both Ling and Chinese-American actress Lu are given the most emotionally closeted roles, with Ling’s Yansheng remaining pretty much an enigma until the very end. Despite its content, “Apart Together” is most definitely not a romantic/divided-country meller, offering few direct emotional hooks for viewers.
It’s actually character actor Xu, as Yu’e’s easygoing, practical husband, who mirrors the movie’s essential soul of tolerance and practicality in a performance that turns into the pic’s one likable, showpiece role. He’s mirrored on a younger level, repping China’s younger, free-minded generation, by Mok (“Ocean Flame”), who registers a strong physical presence.
Tech package is simple and unvarnished, with the cool lensing and bare-bones editing neither glamorizing nor exoticizing Shanghai. Majority of the dialogue is in the Shanghainese dialect, with Ling’s character speaking in Mandarin.