The emotional, even healing, power of music is only one of the themes that interest acclaimed Chinese director Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine, Temptress Moon) in his beautiful new film, Together. Other, equally important concerns include father-son relationships and the way China, in its headlong pursuit of modernization, is abandoning some of its richest cultural and historical traditions.
Chen wraps all these into the story of Xiaochun (Tang Yun, in a wonderfully moving acting debut), a 13-year-old violinist who moves, with his father, from a small provincial village to Beijing in order to find a suitable teacher for his talents. Quiet and shy, the boy expresses himself through his playing.
His father, Liu Cheng (Liu Peiqi), a cook back in their village, is also diffident and unsophisticated, but he is determined that his son will achieve more than he has done. He sets his sights on Xiaochun becoming a world-famous violinist and sacrifices everything to make the dream come true.
Xiaochun studies with two very different teachers in Beijing. Professor Jiang (Wang Zhiwen, who won China's Best Supporting Actor Award for his performance) is a rumpled curmudgeon with a cantankerous manner and a house full of stray cats. He lives modestly, aspiring neither to great riches nor to international fame. Music sustains him emotionally, and he asks for nothing more.
Professor Yu (played by Chen Kaige himself) undoubtedly once shared Jiang's pure love of the art, but his embrace of China's new, Western-style values of rampant consumerism and material success have subverted his ideals. Music for him has become a means to an end, a steppingstone to great wealth and acclaim.
Also caught between these two value systems, albeit not so obviously, is Lili (Chen Hong, the director's wife), a vivacious gold digger who befriends Xiaochun. Although the boy calls her "big sister," it is clear that he has developed his first romantic crush. Despite her lifestyle -- she flits from one man to another, depending on who can shower her with the nicest gifts -- inside Lili is a touching innocence and more substance than even she gives herself credit for.
The central relationship in the film, however, is between Liu Cheng and Xiaochun. Veteran actor Liu and neophyte Tang are totally convincing as father and son. Both bring great emotional depth to their roles, without a hint of sentimentality. Viewers with an exceedingly low tolerance for sentiment may find the story a bit trite, but the emotions are so true and the characters so appealing that the film should completely win over the most hardened viewer.
As a director, Chen is best known to American audiences for his historical epics, with their gorgeous visuals and the stunning actress Gong Li. Though he excels at those, there is clearly something very personal for him about Together. One of China's most important "Fifth Generation" directors, Chen grew up during the Cultural Revolution. As a boy of 14, he was forced to publicly denounce his father. Even though the two reconciled, Chen will always carry the pain of his actions.
The Cultural Revolution is this film's most important off-screen character, influencing not only Chen but also the various characters in the film. Liu Cheng doesn't want Xiaochun to lose the opportunities that he and his generation were denied, and he pushes his son, albeit always lovingly, to succeed. The shift in values in contemporary Chinese culture is also a product of the dark years of the Revolution. While embracing modern ideas is good, Chen also mourns what has been lost -- the traditions, the love of art for art's sake, the importance of family, a respect for something other than making money -- and the film is a plea not to abandon these things.
Beautifully shot by Korean cinematographer Kim Hyungkoo (he and Chen had to communicate through a translator on the set), Together also features an exquisite score that includes both Western and Eastern classical music (the Tchaikovsky soars), as well as incidental music by contemporary composer Zhao Lin. Although Tang, like his onscreen character, is an accomplished violinist, Xiaochun's musical numbers were performed by violin virtuoso Li Chuanyun, who has a small role in the film. Music envelops the story, and the rousing rendition of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in the film's final scene will send viewers home feeling transported.