A young teen violinist finds himself torn between art and mammon in “Together,” a glossy, old-fashioned heartwarmer set amid the alleyways and concert halls of modern Beijing. Ladled with acres of Tchaikovsky et al. on the soundtrack and a plot whose stereotypes are only a notch above mainland Chinese studios’ mainstream production, pic reps an attempt by Chen Kaige to make a modest, commercially acceptable movie. However, given his artsy, serious fan base in the West and the hurdle (outside fests) of being in subtitled Mandarin, pic looks like it might fall between two auds.
After a bidding flurry following the Toronto fest world preem, United Artists grabbed North American rights for $1.5 million. However, pic will need exceptional critical support, savvy marketing and perhaps some reworking for UA to hit many major business chords; in Europe, its chances look even dicier. Film doesn’t have the whiff of a breakout hit, a la “Cinema Paradiso,” as was bruited in easily pleased Toronto.
After the mixed success of his costume epic “The Emperor and the Assassin” (1999) and the critical-commercial bomb of his English-lingo debut, “Killing Me Softly,” Chen has finally returned to the safer waters of a smaller movie. Though best known for historical pageants such as “Farewell My Concubine,” Chen has done some of his best work on more intimate canvases, and there are moments of character observation in “Together” when the helmer of ’80s classics “King of the Children,” “The Big Parade” and “Yellow Earth” can still be seen.
Above all, however, “Together” is a cleverly packaged, feel-good fabrication, with a portrait of China that is modern but highly selective. Modern Beijing hardly exists in the hermetic, almost fairy-tale world of (now almost vanished) alleys and courtyards created by Chen and his South Korean d.p. Kim Hyung-koo.
Liu Xiaochun (Tang Yun) is a prize-winning, 13-year-old violinist who has been raised solo by his devoted, uneducated father, Liu Cheng (Liu Peiqi). Born in the countryside but currently living near Shanghai, Xiaochun is even hired out by his dad to encourage a pregnant woman to give birth.
Knowing the boy’s future career lies in the big city, his father travels with him to Beijing, where Xiaochun has been invited to audition at a music school. Though he ends up placing high, Xiaochun can’t study at the state school without a local residency permit; however, he’s told unofficially that no one will object if he stays on in the capital and finds a private teacher.
This turns out to be the unconventional and ornery Prof. Jiang (Wang Zhiwen), who lives in an untidy apartment and has been reduced to taking on no-talent children of wealthy parents.
There’s a flow to the film’s opening reels that is very seductive, as the odd couple of father and son are swept from the picturesque waterways of Suzhou to the bustle of Beijing. From their first arrival at the capital’s train station, Xiaochun is introduced to a harder, brassier world, typified by a hooker, Lili (TV actress Chen Hong, the helmer’s wife). The mildly eccentric Jiang also fits well into the pic’s semi-realistic world, underscored by classical music and opera, Kim’s glossy lensing and the slightly overplayed stereotypes shaded by a fair amount of humor.
After moving by chance into lodgings opposite Lili’s, father and son start building their lives, the former as a bike deliverer and the latter alternating musical lessons with Jiang and social sessions with Lili.
However, when Xiaochun has a disagreement with Jiang, his father has to find another teacher: This is autocratic “star-maker” Prof. Yu (played by the director), who with Mephistophelean cool pits Xiaochun against another pupil (Zhang Qing) for competition honors.
On its own terms, pic works pretty well for the first half, with Wang excellent as the idealistic tutor and Chen Hong having fun with the role of the gold-digging Lili. Though the script, frustratingly, never goes into any detail about Xiaochun’s music lessons, it keeps busy bouncing the kid back and forth between Jiang and Lili’s worlds, with his kindly old dad in between.
It’s with Jiang’s sudden disappearance — until the finale — that the pic’s problems start and the cliches start to mount. Any attempt at drawing Xiaochun’s maturation in the big city is thrown overboard for a competition-centered subplot that soon dominates the movie.
The plucky music student who overcomes adversity is a staple subgenre of mainland cinema and, though Chen Kaige directs with greater slickness and more finesse and humor, there’s still little to differentiate “Together” from any other state-studio pic. From Liu Peiqi’s kindly old peasant father through to everyone pulling together for the greater good and on to a Tchaikovsky-scored finale that’s pure grandstanding pulp, this is 100% typical fare.
Tang, a violin student himself, makes a convincing Xiaochun. Weakest, strangely, of the acting team is Chen Kaige himself, who seems stiff as the boy’s second prof and seems deliberately never to shoot himself in close-up, giving a distanced feel to a crucial role. Korean actress Kim Hye-ri has a nothing part as the prof’s wife. Chinese title literally means “Together With You.”