M O V I E   R E V I E W   B Y   G A R Y   J O H N S O N

"I didn't know the Chinese were so obsessed with Western music," said my friend who was watching this film next to me. "Ha!" I said. Juilliard is crowded with Chinese prodigies! Look at the rosters of international competitions: there are Chinese performers (also Korean and Japanese) all over the place. And yet… it is one thing to look at the relatively Westernized Chinese boys and girls schlepping their violins around Lincoln Center in New York, but it is something different to see them in their native element -- to see that for many of them mastery of European music (I have to admit I didn't know of any Chinese composers in classical Western style until I heard Zhao Lin, the composer who wrote some music for this film) has become exactly what it used to be for the East European Jews of the turn of the century and Soviet Jews long after the revolution -- a passport to a better life.

A boy and his violin. A doting, driving parent dreaming of the glamour of international competitions. Hollywood doesn't even bother remaking melodramas like this any more. A musician making it… you talking Eminem, 8 Mile? Getting into a school like Juilliard is as hard as ever, but in today's America, public radio goes to extraordinary ends to keep classical music on the air.

Yet for a great director, there are no outmoded subjects or banal plots. Along comes Chen Kaige (of Farewell, My Concubine fame), and who needs Hollywood? Together, his new film, is the kind of film Hollywood probably couldn't make any more even if it tried.

The plot is as simple as they come: a father, a humble provincial chef, brings his son, a violin prodigy, to Beijing for a major competition. Once there, he discovers that, alas, the game is rigged, and without a good teacher his boy doesn't have a chance. So the two stay on to fight for their dream of floodlit stages and glamorous international audiences.

On the other hand, the simpler, the less cluttered the story, the more the class of film-making comes into focus. Chen Kaige is the kind of director who does everything Hollywood does -- only better. There's not one frame wasted in this two-hour-plus-long film, and it flies through like a dream. I didn't look at my watch once, while my companion kept sniffling and going through the tissues.

Because, after all, it is a melodrama. The father did not simply bring up the child all by himself; oh no, there's a soap-operatic mystery about the boy's birth -- and this story, well-told, helps to get the boy under the tutelage of Professor Yu, the real star-maker (played with cool finesse by the director himself). Wouldn't you know even as you watch the father stashing his hard-earned yuans in his uncool orange knit cap that they would be stolen -- and that he would have to take any job, no matter how humiliating for a celebrated chef, to pay for his son's lessons? Or the good-time girl Lili (played by Chen Hong, the director's wife) who befriends his son a la Breakfast at Tiffany's - don't you know her good-for-nothing rich boyfriend (actually, one of many) will ditch her? And then the boy would sell his late mother's violin to buy the girl the coat she set her beautiful eyes on, and then through a sitcom-like confusion the rich scoundrel would pretend it was he who had bought it? Oy… it's that kind of a movie.

But Mr. Kaige is the kind of director who not only gets sterling performances from his cast, but moves the film along smoothly and vigorously, alternating between endless comedic bits of charming inventiveness and bravura pieces set to Vivaldi, Paganini, and Tchaikovski; it has been a long time since classic music looked so good on screen. He keeps you constantly preoccupied, so you don't get a chance to reflect on the soapy slickness of the plot. He has a meticulous attention to detail and more importantly, a keen appreciation of the ways drama and comedy are inextricably linked together in our lives. When the father decides to leave for his home town, he thanks his son for telling him to "admit your mistakes" (the phrase must sound hilarious to the Chinese, with its echoes of Mao's show trials). He makes an extravagant gesture of gratitude that puts a squeeze on our hearts -- and promptly knocks down a lamp.

Liu Peiqi's performance as the father is pure Chaplin. It will be a snowy night in Bel Air before they give an Oscar to an actor playing a Chinese country bumpkin, but I'm sure it will not go unappreciated in more sophisticated quarters. Mr. Peiqi combines physical agility with a great repertoire of facial expressions. His father is a man who is both pathetic and admirable in his ambition, constantly torn apart between doing right by his son and doing the right thing, well aware of his humble roots and never ashamed of them. His attitude is simple, as when he removes his shoes at the door of Professor Yu's grand apartment and nimbly covers the hole in his sock with an apologetic smile. I am what I am, he seems to say, and you can do with me what you want; but my son, well, he's a genius. If anything, he deserves an award for the best portrayal of a Jewish mother.

Almost as impressive is Wang Ziwen playing the boy's first professor -- a loser with dignity who lives with his uncountable cats in a meticulously swept hovel, a man who missed his chances early on and is now forced to put on a show for the world. You can tell that between the two professors, the director's sympathy is with Professor Jiang -- a piece of old China who can't find his place in the rampant materialism of modern society.

And therein lies another important difference that raises Together well above the by-the-numbers melodrama it could have been in a hack's hands: step by step, Chen Kaige firmly anchors his characters in a larger picture of today's China, where the town and the country, the cultured and the moneyed, are dancing a complicated dance where steps are being changed constantly. In this world, the smallest gesture of kindness is expected to yield a few bucks in return. Lily, for one, constantly throws little bills at the boy for small favors, for in her world nothing is free and everything is for sale, including love and art. Or almost: Chen Kaige makes an heroic effort to show that even in today's China not everything can be bought. For a few moments in the darkness of the theater, you believe him. And that's not a bad feeling.

[rating: 3.5 of 4 stars]

Distributor Web site: United Artists
Movie Web site: Together



Photo credits: © 2003 United Artists. All rights reserved.