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Together (Han Ni Zai Yiki) (PG)
United Artists
Official Site
Director: Chen Kaige
Producers: Yang Buting, Yan Xiaoming, Li Bolun, Chen Kaige
Written by: Chen Kaige, Xue Xiao Lu
Cast: Tang Yun, Liu Peiqi, Chen Hong, Wang Zhiwen, Chen Kaige

Rating: out of 5

If, for some strange reason, our commander-in-chief ever needs to assemble a coalition of the willing to ensure that Americans are not the only ones making tender coming-of-age films with a treacly family-values patina, it appears he may be able to count on the Chinese. Together, the latest from director Chen Kaige (Farewell, My Concubine) proves that as long as parents and children love each other, we Americans should have nothing to fear from our communist brethren.

Thirteen-year-old Xiaochun (Tang) possesses a prodigious talent as a violinist. His father Cheng (Liu) is determined to see him achieve great success, despite their modest means and unconventional single-father family. The pair leave behind their provincial town and head for the bustle and challenges of Beijing. In the capital, father and son have one or two wacky adventures that underscore their bumpkinesque lack of big-city ways, but the film is not about their adjustment to the new life. Instead, it focuses on Xiaochun himself, who, at a very young age, is faced with choices that will largely determine the kind of life he will have as an adult.

Perhaps the most significant choice is how he wishes to express himself through music. Cheng persuades a renowned violinist to teach his son, and Xiaochun begins his studies with Professor Jhiang (Wang). With his Einsteinian hair and obsession with his kittens, the teacher resembles the brooding, melancholy intellectual stereotype (Sean Connery in Finding Forrester) more than the wild-eyed professor one (Christopher Lloyd in Back To The Future), but he is somewhat of a stock character nonetheless. Insisting that Xiaochun only play the violin when it makes him happy, Jhiang seems more interested in teaching Xiaochun about the place of music within a complete life than teaching technical virtuosity.

But his Karate Kid training regimen consists of getting his teacher’s socks out from under the bed rather than actually playing the violin, and soon Xiaochun’s attention starts to wander. Specifically, he befriends an attractive older neighbor, Lili (Chen). Lili’s life revolves around her suitors, their money, and the clothes it can buy. Nonetheless, she has a heart of gold (sigh) and really cares for Xiaochun, who becomes rather enamored of her and her lifestyle. Meanwhile, the boy’s father is impatient with the training regimen of Professor and the lack of immediate success, and moves Xiaochun to another teacher.  Professor Yu (played by director Chen) is cold, self-absorbed, and manipulative, but believes that he can make Xiaochun a star. When the student moves in with Professor Yu, at the latter’s request, the boy realizes he is at a major crossroads in his life. His relationships to family, music, and his home are all coming into conflict while simultaneously his infatuation with Lili adds newly emerging feelings of love and sexuality into an already confusing mix.

Though Chen has claimed that Together exemplifies and dramatizes the shift in Chinese attitudes about art as that nation increasingly moves toward a market economy, the film never really transcends “feel-good movie” status. Neither the plot nor its resolution offer any surprises, and few of the characters make any lasting impression. At a solid two hours, the movie tends to drag near the end, and could have been tightened up significantly. But the film is not without merit:  It is thoroughly charming, the performances are uniformly good, and the music is a joy to hear. (The kid actually plays the violin, though it is not his playing that you hear in the movie.) Furthermore, the visuals of Beijing are fascinating to those who, like me, might be relatively untraveled Americans. Together is as difficult to pan as it is to recommend. While a pleasant enough experience, it leaves the feeling that it wanted to offer something more than the banal paeans to family, home, and loving-what-you-do that its title suggests.

—Mike O’Connor

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