Tchaikovsky’s Concerto in D Major — the Mt. Everest of the classical violin — looms beautifully over Chen Kaige’s earnest and optimistic film, Together, about a father who pursues international stardom for his son, a shy 13-year old virtuoso. The bittersweet experiences of both father and son in Beijing form the basis for this quiet, smart film. The result is a feel-good tale about the brutality of making it big.
Tensions between art and fame — and between father and son — are nothing new to 52-year old Chinese filmmaker Chen Kaige, whose 1993 Oscar-nominated Farewell My Concubine depicted the brutality of Peking opera schools and the betrayals enforced by the Cultural Revolution. Though less sweeping than that film, Together also reflects Kaige’s own biography: in the late 1970s, as a teenage member of Mao’s Red Guard, Kaige publicly denounced his father’s avant-garde films as subversive. So it’s no surprise that Together turns out to be partially a fable about a father-son reconciliation.
Beginning in the impoverished provinces where the son, Xiao Chun (Tang Yu) and the father, Liu Cheng (Liu Peiqu) sense they are on the cusps of the big time, the film shows the pair arriving in Beijing where they very quickly learn about the duplicities and liberties of big city life. And Liu’s hyperactive performance as the country bumpkin and the doting father carries the drama from start to finish.
Very early on the boy’s fantasies come to life when the sexy and heart-strong femme fatale, Li Li shows up next door and takes the boy on as a personal assistant and romantic confidante. Li Li, played with irresistible seductiveness by Kaige’s wife, the actress Chen Hong, manages dual roles as a mother figure and as a leggy, cover-girl Mephistopheles.
Meanwhile Xiao’s father’s wild-eyed, naïve charisma convinces Professor Jiang, a semi-retired neighborhood teacher, to become a mentor to his son. Jiang, who is played with studied sadness by the noted actor Wang Zhiwen, is a down-on-his-luck sophisticate who stinks nearly as badly as the stray cats who live with him in his seedy flat. Challenged by the boy’s neediness, Jiang comes to face the broken promises of his own past. And love, as opposed to faking it, becomes the movie’s insistent theme, so much so that the tensions between music-for-fame’s sake and music-for-the-sake-of-love embroil the father in a dispute with Professor Jiang, who is replaced by the more well-connected and prodigious Professor Yu, played by Chen Kaige himself as a stern teacher with steely, smug self-assurance.
As Xiao begins rebelling against the loneliness that accompanies his advancing musical career, Together reveals the cold heart of the world of classical music in China. Having berated one of his own accomplished protégés as a sell-out, Yu prepares Xiao to enter an international completion, forcing the boy to rehearse while standing alone in a darkened hall. "Even heaven is dark," he tells the boy, "only the angels have light." Revealingly switching metaphors, he assures the boy that his violin is a weapon. "Your feelings are bullets," he tells him. "You must conquer." Later, the father, swept off his feet by his son’s transformation into a contender, declares that, "The shotgun’s become a sleek rifle." Is this tough love? Or are these just mean-spirited, unfulfilled adults? Kaige keeps us guessing. And there is unambiguous beauty in how he frames the changes that the boy experiences. Like Kaige’s more recent if somewhat vacuous Temptress Moon, Together intersperses its determinism with poetic scenes shot in luminous colors, suggesting those other-worlds of musical bliss and budding sexuality which young Xiao embodies. The soundtrack invigorates the picture’s key turning points, complementing the stunning classical performances with more traditional Chinese music. These musical variations and the contrasting locales create competing images of contemporary Beijing, from its muddy alleyways to its upscale shopping malls. And the screenplay provides its own hilarious commentary on the ugly side of China’s emerging bourgeoisie.
However, the main reward of Together is how convincingly the film depicts the growing honesty between these characters. Such unabashed optimism marks a real departure for Kaige, who has so far built his eclectic body of work by depicting China’s restricted emotional lives. Kaige paints a sunny picture of Beijing’s emerging social mobility. While the adult characters collaborate on Xiao’s education, the boy is often left to his own devices. His own murky history — which includes a missing mother and a mysterious violin — keep the climax from dissolving into its own sweetness. If Together’s happy ending seems too easy, at least Xiao has faced the dubious blessings of his own gift. And maybe he’s even begun to achieve what one visitor to his provincial town had promised— "At least you understand how life works."