- The Washington Times - Friday, June 6, 2003

In a recent conversation, Chinese filmmaker Chen Kaige acknowledged that his favorite director was the late David Lean. This influence was evident in the movies that sustained Mr. Chen’s international reputation during the 1990s: “Farewell, My Concubine,” “Temptress Moon” and “The Emperor and the Assassin.” All lavish, ambitious and occasionally bewildering costume epics.

Some kind of letdown seems to be afflicting the Chen sensibility in “Together,” a contemporary tear-jerker opening today at the Cinema Arts, Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle and Landmark Bethesda Row. The movie is a parable of parental devotion and filial piety, but it fails to rejuvenate a well-worn theme that could have enduring potential: the training of young classical musicians.

China evidently teems with specimens. The promise of that multitude — and the musical interludes that might be inserted to document the phenomenon — is constricted into a narrow melodramatic channel that seems to diminish human interest and musical gratification alike.

A precocious boy violinist from the provinces, 13-year-old Xiaochun, embodied by Tang Yun, an authentic prodigy, is escorted to Beijing by his widowed, self-sacrificing father, Liu Cheng (Liu Peiqi), a cook who is willing to surmount any obstacle to his son’s improvement and success. Ultimately, the boy himself proves a stumbling block after exchanging a second-rate but amusingly shabby instructor (Wang Zhiwen as Professor Jiang) for an elite teacher who seems to enjoy pitting his best pupils against each other. The overprivileged cutthroat, Professor Yu, is portrayed by the director.

Something of a family affair behind the cameras, “Together” also showcases the director’s spouse, actress Chen Hong, as an entertaining distraction named Lili, a Beijing gold digger who lives near the newcomers and bedazzles Xiaochun. The boy starts hanging around and functioning as Lili’s mascot. In fact, the movie seems more proficient at depicting this adolescent crush than the musical education of its juvenile lead. Curiously, his violin passages were dubbed by another prodigy, Li Chuanyun, seen in a rehearsal scene as a young violinist being reprimanded by Professor Yu for his lazy bowmanship, or something. It’s a bit like Jean Hagen actually dubbing Debbie Reynolds pretending to dub Jean Hagen on the soundtrack of “Singin’ in the Rain.”

There’s also a resident prodigy in the Yu apartment, a teenage girl who doesn’t seem to be identified in the cast credits. Her playing sounds more arresting than anything attributed to the boys, but for unresolved reasons, Professor Yu seems determined to sap her self-confidence. Happily, she proves a tough cookie of the classical persuasion, unlikely to crack because of mere rejection and inexplicable favoritism; but add an undercurrent of “Seventh Veil” male-mentor, female-protegee tension to the unraveling plot, which also comes up with a flashback about Liu Cheng’s paternity that might have been filched unwisely from “The Importance of Being Earnest.” The fathers and surrogate fathers never get adequately sorted out as the muddle proliferates.

Mr. Chen also has miscalculated with his pivotal casting choice. Tang Yun may fiddle up a storm in the concert hall in real life, but he’s a charmless poker face as a camera subject. One doesn’t object to the idea of a brooding, self-centered prodigy, but this one seems to possess expressive vitality only from the wrists down.

You would appreciate reactions that approximate your own fond responses to Lili, Professor Jiang and the girl violinist. Mr. Chen is obliged to overcompensate by making the father an even more pathetic image of blind love. By the fade-out, the movie is eyebrow deep in mawkish defense mechanisms. I found myself yearning for some cleansing mockery of the sort W.C. Fields perfected in “The Fatal Glass of Beer” while pontificating on the snares of city life for ignorant country boys. Something in the vein of his profound observation, “It ain’t no place for womenfolk, but pretty men go thar.”

*1/2TITLE: “Together”

RATING: PG (Episodes of family conflict and bitterness)

CREDITS: Directed by Chen Kaige. Screenplay by Mr. Chen and Xue Xiaolu. Cinematography by Kim Hyungkoo. In Chinese with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 117 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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