China has long been known as a breeding ground for musical prodigies, a fact that Chen Kaige takes as the basis for Together. The movie explores the bond between motherless violin phenom Xiaochun and his instrument, and by extension (and more importantly) his father, Cheng, with an eye on adolescence and a sonata’s worth of schmaltz.
Country bumpkin Cheng (Peiqi Liu) is a typical stage parent, truly convinced that his 13-year-old is better than his peers and just needs a chance to shine in the national spotlight. The two travel to Beijing for a violin competition, and though Xiaochun (Yun Tang) finishes a lowly fifth, Cheng’s hope is only refreshed. Cheng’s luck is good; his persistence and flies-on-honey need for his son’s success land the two in the dirty apartment of the perpetually mussed Professor Jiang, whose main attribute beyond sharing lovelorn life lessons with Xiaochun is an unbelievable sweep of hair that is half-Einstein, half-Lynch.
Kaige’s intent is that we appreciate the relationship between Xiaochun and his hired mentor, but when Jiang sends his pupil off to study with a teacher who can better bring the boy fame and fortune, and excuses it by saying that he’s taught Xiaochun all he can, it’s confusing, since we never see the teacher actually teach. (At least from a musical standpoint. Yes, music is three parts emotion and one part technique, but surely he must have imparted something to Xiaochun other than hair-care tips.)
It’s just a distraction tactic, though. The nut of Kaige’s story is not Xiaochun’s transformation from hick to maestro, but his father’s slow heartbreak as he watches his son enter a world too sophisticated for Cheng to be a part of. Played with a tender goofiness by Liu (in the American version of Together, this role would go to Mos Def), Cheng can only stand by as his son’s talent takes him such places as the apartment of a gorgeous gold-digger and the antiseptic home of the best violin teacher in the city.
Cheng belongs in the noisy, dirty stalls of the farmers market and the steamy kitchens of mediocre restaurants. The look of self-conscious horror that crosses his face whenever he realizes he’s overstepped his class bounds is painfully funny.
Predictably, just when it seems Xiaochun is really slipping out of his grasp, Cheng’s love for his son is reflected back at him in the movie’s superficially pedestrian finale. Xiaochun makes the necessary choice between duty and feeling (and conveniently ties up the film’s title), and all obvious signs point to this being a movie about a boy and his music. But that’s not how it is, no matter what Kaige thinks he wants you to believe. Things are so rarely what they seem: Xiaochun’s love may be music, but Cheng’s is musical.
Opens Friday exclusively at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-542-0180.
Erin Podolsky writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.