Success With Chinese Characteristics?
Once upon a time there was a musician, a teacher and performer of Western classical music, in Beijing. During the Cultural Revolution this man was attacked and humiliated by a gang of rowdy students - a painful experience made infinitely more so by the fact that one of the students roughing him up was his own son, Chen Kaige.
Chen Kaige is now a renowned film director, best known in America for rich costume dramas such as Farewell, My Concubine and Temptress Moon. But Chen is also the author of Young Kaige, a soul-searching memoir about his participation in the Cultural Revolution. (Unfortunately, the book does not appear to be available in English).
Chen Kaige's 2002 film, Together, tells a different story but one suffused with strong emotion drawn from this background. It is about Liu Cheng (Liu Peiqi), a comical but affecting peasant from a small provincial city, where he works as a cook and nurtures the musical career of his gifted 13-year-old son, Liu Xiaochun (Tang Yun). Xiaochun is devoted not just to the violin in general but to a particular violin that, according to Cheng, was left to him by his deceased mother.
Despite his rough manners and lack of education, Cheng manages to take Xiaochun to Beijing and enter him in a national contest, which he loses. But then, hearing one of the judges, Jiang (Wang Zhiwen), complain about the system being rigged in favor of the not-so-talented children of the rich, Cheng cajoles Jiang into taking Xiaochun as a pupil.
Jiang is a fine but embittered teacher who lives alone with six cats in one of the old, picturesque but poor districts of Beijing known as hutong (meaning something like, "street wide enough for two carts to pass"). When he has taught Xiaochun all he can, he gracefully allows the boy to graduate to Shifeng Yu (played by Chen Kaige himself), a celebrity teacher more skilled at hustling his students into the big time.
Father and son also live in a hutong, but one seemingly threatened by redevelopment, because right next door is a new high-rise, one resident of which is Lili (Chen Hong, the wife of Chen Kaige), a pretty young woman whose life consists in entertaining her rich boyfriend and spending the money he gives her. Lili isn't a prostitute, as uncomprehending critics have suggested, but rather a "kept woman" (to use an antiquated phrase) But she is not happy, any more than Jiang is happy pretending to teach music to the unmusical offspring of plutocrats.
As these characters are drawn into a tale of Horatio Alger ambition and Charles Dickens self-discovery, the film feels both old and new. It feels old because of these literary echoes, and the way it tackles the themes of money, success, and loyalty - which is strongly reminiscent of classic Hollywood. (Some reviewers have found hints of Frank Capra, and they are right.)
Yet Together also feels new, because while hardly a tragedy, it does take a somewhat critical stance toward the way these themes work themselves out in contemporary China. It's tempting to say, well great, the Chinese have their own Frank Capra. But that raises a troubling question: Was Together released in China? I have checked the Internet Movie Database, and according to that fairly reliable source, it was not!
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