Together (2002)

"Very Good"

Together (2002) Review


In his nine feature films, Chinese auteur Chen Kaige has given Western audiences amazing opportunities to learn the ins and outs of China's tumultuous history, most notably in Temptress Moon, The Emperor and the Assassin, and the Oscar-nominated Farewell My Concubine. Chen's latest, Together, is a more humble effort than those historical epics, but beyond its heartwarming tale of a 13-year-old violin prodigy and his impoverished father's attempts to give him a better life no matter what there's a gritty depiction of old China colliding with new, for better and for worse.

Liu Xiaochun (Tang Yun, in a piece of casting that's nothing short of miraculous) has already amazed all the locals in his provincial town with his musical talents. He needs a bigger stage. His widower father Liu Cheng (Liu Peiqi) decides to leave his nightmarish job as a restaurant cook, tuck his meager life savings into his red cap, and take Xiaochun to Beijing, where he hopes to find a suitable violin teacher and new opportunities for his son.

Both father and son are astonished by the city's sprawling size and frantic pace, but soon enough they find their way through some decrepit alleys to Jiang (Wang Zhiwen), a once famous piano player who now gives music lessons while stoking a coal fire in his dirty one-room house, a house stacked to the rafters with sheet music, old musical instruments, and cats. Jiang and Xiaochun have a rocky relationship punctuated by petulance and fights, and it isn't long before Liu Cheng realizes his son may need someone a little more on top of his game to coach his son. Surprisingly, Jiang agrees.

Enter Professor Shifeng (Chen Kaige himself), a powerful and wealthy music professor who can promise Xiaochun a future of music academies and international performances. The price? Liu Cheng must agree to let Xianchun live with the intimidating professor and another student in his opulent and totally Western apartment. Father and son must be willing to separate. Naturally, Dad agrees at once, even as dismay and heartbreak register on his face. After all, Xiaochun is literally the only thing he has in the world.

Xiaochun finds himself so stressed out by his situation that his behavior becomes increasingly erratic. At one point, he even sells his violin to buy a coat for his new neighborhood crush, the lovely Lili (Chen Hong), who may or may not be a high-priced "hooker with a heart of gold." Her comical addiction to designer labels makes her the movie's most obvious embodiment of the new China, and Xiaochun is dazzled by the shopping malls through which she drags him day after day.

The movie's suspense is built around Xiaochun's troubled mind. Unlike Billy Elliot, in which the father fights the son's dream, here the son is fighting the father's dream to a certain extent, and the ultimate outcome could go either way.

Together is a crowd pleaser in which everyone Xiaochun encounters is on his side all the way through. Given Chen's track record of depicting China's harsh historical realities, it's surprising to see him come up with such a sentimental script. In interviews, he's said that his love of classical music inspired him to write a film that would be infused with beautiful music throughout. He got what he wanted: a story of old China versus new, of the transforming power of music, and of the love between a father and his son.

Aka He ni zai yi qi.

Happy together.



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