Coming as it does on the heels of his widely panned American erotic thriller Killing Me Softly, Chen Kaige's Together will represent for some a further "selling out" to American cultural tastes. Like fellow countryman Zhang Yimou, Chen made his name with subtle yet ravishing epics, then made a right turn into warm-hearted, kid-glove dramas like Together. Chen's ode to music and family may barely hold it together, but Together tries every trick in the book to captivate an audience, so just try to resist.
In narrative terms, Chen tosses in a bit of The Bicycle Thief and a hint of Malena on the way to becoming Searching for Bobby Fischer, Beijing-style. Thirteen-year-old violin prodigy Xiaochun (Tang Yun) has outgrown his provincial home; with starry eyes, his scrappy single father Liu Cheng (Liu Peiqi) relocates them to Beijing. There, Xiaochun immediately becomes the musical puppy to a disaffected young woman named Lili (Chen Hong, the director's wife), whose profession is juggling "sugar daddies." Liu Cheng hustles his son into the tutelage of the somewhat shabby Professor Jiang (a winningly laconic Wang Zhiwen), whose sway with the boy the upscale Professor Yu--played by director Chen--soon challenges. In Yu's world, Xiaochun meets Lin Yu (Qing Zhang), a rival student who makes a much more interesting foil than Lili but remains unfortunately underdeveloped.
Chen milks the patriarchal trifecta for all the emotion, melodrama, and symbolism it can bear: Jiang represents love of the art, and Yu represents material success. Chen considers this the great Chinese cultural conflict: passion or prosperity? One moment early in the film depicts Liu Cheng attempting to refuse payment for Xiaochun's playing at a hometown gig. When Xiaochun accepts the money, the boy's benefactor tells him, "At least you understand how life works." Of course, the father wants material success in the big city for his son, but his motivations are evidently love and pride. Chen carefully muddies the waters by allowing each father figure to waver: Jiang's depressive cynicism belies his real message to "Feel the music in your heart!" while Yu is first seen scolding a past prodigy--now a star--for abandoning feeling in favor of technique.
Together is at its best when it evokes and invokes the power of music. Chen triumphantly stakes a claim to Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto (though Tang Yun is a novice actor and accomplished violinist, Li Chuanyun is heard on the soundtrack). A centerpiece of the film is a music-as-rhythm-of-life montage to Xiaochun's playing. Together is also a handsome film. In moments of emotional and musical crescendos--which Chen labors to equate--characters gleam brightly, illustrating the running theme of letting out one's inner light. This theme intersects ultimately with a richly developed "lost and found" theme; in the film's teary climax, Chen asks and answers the question, "Whose baby is this?"