Apart Together

This modest Berlin opener is a light family drama that references historical and political issues.

With: Lisa Lu, Ling Feng, Xu Caigen, Monica Mok, Ma Xiaoqing, Jin Na, Yu Baiyang, Xue Guoping, Leila Wei.

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.

Popular on Variety

Apart Together

Shanghainese, Mandarin dialogue

Production: A Lightshades Film Prods., Xi'an Movie & TV Prod., Jiuzhou Audio Publishing Co., Western Movie Group Co. production. (International sales: Celluloid Dreams, Paris.) Produced by Wang Quanan, Wang Le, Du Daning, Wang Zhanliang, Ou Wen, Ruan Yusheng. Directed by Wang Quanan. Executive director, Li Qi. Screenplay, Wang, Na Jin.

Crew: Camera (color), Lutz Reitemeier; editor, Wu Yixiang; music, Ma Peng; production designers, Yu Baiyang, He Xufeng; supervising art director, Wang Zhijian; costumes, Zhang Min; makeup, Xu Guangrui; sound (Dolby Digital), Li Shuo, Shen Jianqin; assistant director, Zhang Chong. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (opener, competing), Feb. 11, 2010. Running time: 96 MIN.

Cast: With: Lisa Lu, Ling Feng, Xu Caigen, Monica Mok, Ma Xiaoqing, Jin Na, Yu Baiyang, Xue Guoping, Leila Wei.

More Scene

  • US record producer The-Dream arrives for

    Top Music Publishers Come Together for Songs of Hope Honors

    The 15th annual Songs of Hope honors united songwriters, music industry insiders and more than a few preeminent doctors at producer Alex Da Kid’s Sherman Oaks compound on Thursday night. Jimmy Jam returned to host the event, which served as a fundraiser for the ever-vital City of Hope medical treatment center as well as a [...]

  • Renee Zellweger Rufus Wainwright Sam Smith

    Renée Zellweger: Judy Garland Was 'My Childhood Hero'

    Awards buzz is building around Renée Zellweger for her performance as Judy Garland, emerging as a frontrunner in the Oscar race for best actress. But for her, the real prize was paying tribute to Garland, of whom she’s been a lifelong fan. “Nobody was prettier, nobody sang prettier…the adventures she had, [she was] my childhood [...]

  • Keke Palmer BlogHer19 Summit

    Keke Palmer Brought to Tears Accepting Truth Teller Award at #BlogHer19 Creators Summit

    Keke Palmer stood surprised and wide-mouthed on the #BlogHer19 Creators Summit stage as she was presented with the Truth Teller Award for her recent acting work — and her viral “sorry to this man” clip. “This means so much,” the multi-hyphenated star softly whispered as she got teary-eyed upon accepting the award. Last week, the [...]


    Emmys 2019: Inside All the Hottest Pre-Parties

    It’s (Emmys) party time! Before the 71st annual Emmys go live on Sunday, stars and execs are keeping busy by party-hopping in the days leading up to the big show. Here, Variety gives you the inside details on who was where and what they were doing. Keep checking back right here throughout the weekend for [...]

  • Jennifer Lopez Green Dress

    Jennifer Lopez Closes Out Versace Show in Famous Green Grammys Dress

    Jennifer Lopez has found her way back into the Versace dress that broke the internet in 2000. The “Hustlers” star closed out Versace’s Spring 2020 show in a re-worked version of the revealing, bright green silk chiffon dress that she wore to the Grammy Awards 20 years ago. The dress quickly became a pop-culture phenomenon, [...]

  • 10 Storytellers to Watch

    Variety Celebrates Inaugural 10 Storytellers to Watch Event

    Storytellers from across the spectrum of entertainment — film, literature, podcasting and play writing — were honored Thursday at Variety’s inaugural 10 Storytellers to Watch luncheon at Gramercy Park Hotel, hosted with partner the Independent Filmmaker Project and presented by Audible. Honorees Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, author of “Friday Black”; “Limetown” podcasters Zack Akers and Skip Bronkie; [...]

  • Demi Moore Corporate Animals

    Demi Moore Teases Upcoming Memoir 'Inside Out,' Talks 'Corporate Animals' Team Bonding

    As Demi Moore gears up for the Sept. 24 release of her autobiography “Inside Out,” the actress says she feels like a weight has been lifted. “Even the stuff that I may have been nervous about is completely lifting…because it’s a process,” Moore told Variety at the premiere of her upcoming film “Corporate Animals” at [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content