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Fingered: Tang Yun pursues violin studies in the big city in 'Together.'

Fiddlesticks

Chen Kaige's 'Together' comes with strings attached

By Richard von Busack

WORLD TRAVELER Paul Theroux, writing an appreciation of China in the 1980s, commented on how the People's Republic still used old-fashioned things: prewar Packards, chamber pots, steel-nibbed fountain pens, steam locomotives. Yes, but nostalgia only goes so far, and in Together, Chen Kaige's redoing of an old-time Lower East Side violin drama, is a preservation of certain clichés of the Depression-era classical-music story you never wanted to see unearthed. Here's the bitter but honest old professor who gets his heart melted, the hopeful old country father who sacrifices everything, the intrepid young student ready--for a minute, anyway--to sacrifice his roots in favor of his rich, sterile mentor. It's a still vigorous type of drama (didn't the plot up turn up as recently as Glitter?), but it hasn't been applied recently to violins, the musical instrument that started it all.

Together, the new one by Chen, expert in gleaming, old-fashioned melos (Farewell My Concubine), follows a country boy, Xiaochun (Tang Yun), who comes to the Beijing of today to compete in a music competition. His father, Liu Cheng (Liu Pieqi), is a countryman who has brought his bedding and his entire fortune concealed in his hat. Without connections or patronage--or even a permanent pass to stay in the capital--the pair can only afford to hire a down-at-the-heels professor, Jiang (Wang Zhiwen), who lives in a shabby studio alive with stray cats. Jiang is humanized somewhat by the natural politeness and decency of his young pupil. The boy himself is interested in Jiang's affluent neighbor--a Holly Golightly-type courtesan called Lili (Chen Hong), who has an ear for the boy's playing.

When Jiang has to admit that he has no social connections sufficient to make a popular success out of Xiaochun, the boy goes across town to apprentice himself with a wealthy, icy impresario (played by Kaige), who coldbloodedly pits his students against one another. There, Xiaochun has to decide whether success is worth sacrificing those he loves.

The funkiness of old-town Beijing is observed fondly, in everything from the charcoal-fueled stoves to the bicycles. The film even includes a dramatic sequence at a train station (no locomotives, though). Of course, the soundtrack offers an all-you-can-hear buffet of classical music, from Debussy's Prelude, in the background, to the grand finale, where Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto is performed under an amped-up golden glow fit to make the sensitive break out their sunglasses. In the press notes, Chen suggests that Together has aspects of social protest. The push to study classical music is at an all-time high in the People's Republic, and supposedly there are a million full-time music students in China today, this being considered one possible way to make a fortune. An American, aware of how symphony orchestras go broke here, may have a little trouble with the concept. However, there's nothing else unfamiliar about Together--the very predictability of the material may be best for an older audience easily shocked by the new.


Together (PG; 116 min.), directed by Chen Kaige, written by Chen and Xiao Lu Xue, photographed by Jiongqiu Jin and Hyung-ku Kim and starring Tang Yun and Liu Pieqi, opens Friday at Camera One in San Jose and the Guild in Menlo Park.


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From the June 5-11, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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