Directed by Chen Kaige. Starring Tang Yun, Liu Peiqi, Chen Hong, Wang Zhiwen, Chen Kaige. (2002, PG, 117 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., June 27, 2003
The latest film by Chen Kaige, the Chinese director of Farewell My Concubine and The Emperor and the Assassin, again confronts issues regarding the history of modern China’s effect on the individual. Together, however, is a contemporary story, instead of the more historically bound tales told in his aforementioned international releases. Together is also something of a universally understood coming-of-age story, whose central figure is the 13-year-old violin prodigy Xiaochun (Tang). Life for Xiaochun changes when his single-parent father Liu Cheng (Liu) moves them from the provinces to Beijing, in order to enroll the boy in an important music academy. Due to intra-academy politics and Liu Cheng’s lack of a residency permit, the father is told to find the boy a private tutor. Willing to sacrifice everything for his demure son’s future, Liu Cheng hires the dissolute Professor Jiang (Wang) to coach his son, and the father and son remain in Beijing. But after some time, Liu Cheng discovers Professor Yu (played by the director Chen), a man he believes to be a more prestigious teacher and starmaker. In these contrasts, Kaige shows us the modern China of the post-Cultural Revolution, in which parents feed off the success of their children and Western music – and all culture – has become a commodity to be purchased by the highest bidder. By the end of the movie, Xiaochun is faced with a choice regarding whether to use his music as a form of self-expression or a tool for social mobility. Yet this allegorical aspect of the movie is less enticing than its human dimension, which shows us a boy’s growth toward manhood amid the bustle and incongruities of modern Beijing. One of the most interesting characters in the movie is Lili (played by the director’s wife, Chen Hong), a grown woman who takes a shine to young Xiaochun. Lili is a modern woman of unstated means, although we must presume she is a prostitute. Her desire for material goods and Western-style romance are indicative of the new China, and she, too, faces decisions before the movie’s end. Although the film’s portrait of modern China is fascinating to observe, the story’s melodrama and denouement are lacking tension and intrigue. The performances are all terrific, but Together never jells as a compelling narrative.