by Shannon Gee


dir. Chen Kaige

Opens Fri June 6 at Harvard Exit.

The conFLicts at play in Chen Kaige's Together are less overtly historical and political than his past films (The Emperor and the Assassin, Yellow Earth), but like his most well-known film in the U.S., Farewell My Concubine, Together puts a talented artist--here a violin prodigy rather than a Chinese opera star--at the center of a changing world. Instead of civil war or the Cultural Revolution, however, the battle this time is growing up in modern China.

Young Xiaochun (newcomer Tang Yun) is the pride both of his small village and his cheerful father, Liu Cheng (Liu Peiqi), who has been squirreling away money from his job as a cook to take his son to Beijing where, it is hoped, he will become a world-class violinist. With their knit hats and mismatched clothes they arrive in a teeming, sparkling metropolis that could fulfill the father's dreams for his only son, and while Cheng takes a job as a restaurant delivery boy, Xiaochun begins lessons with an eccentric teacher. He also develops a crush on a glamorous neighbor named Lili (Chen Hong), whose gold-digging lipstick traces and poster of Marilyn Monroe hanging on her apartment's drab concrete wall hint at a desperate gravitation toward Western-style consumerism.

It isn't long before Xiaochun starts moving up in Beijing, and his father convinces a master teacher (played by Chen Kaige) who lives in a slick high-rise to take Xiaochun under his tutelage. The price, however, is to leave his father behind.

In making Together, Chen seems to draw upon his own variant relationships with music and his father, as well as collateral damage of the Cultural Revolution. According to the press notes, the Red Guard came into Chen's home and told him he had to publicly denounce his father--which he did. And while Western music was forbidden, Chen listened to the inspiring compositions of Mozart and Beethoven in secret. When I asked Chen at the 2002 Toronto International Film Festival why he wanted to make a movie about fathers, sons, and music, his answer was much less biographical or political and something more humanely basic. "Obviously it is something near me, but it's not the main reason for me to make this film," he told me. "I'm concentrating on the relationships. Traditionally, the Chinese people used to be really close to each other, but because of the social change, we are no longer living in housing collectives. We no longer hear our neighbor cooking, arguing, or whatever. We move into a tall apartment building and start cutting off the connections. I think it's a big loss."

In Together, it takes a family from the country to remind the city-slick Lili that there is more to life than money. Still, the sociopolitical issues underlying the film are more complex than just different income brackets. Chen himself plays the exclusive music teacher who manipulates his students' emotions to make them tougher and more competitive. He praises Xiaochun for his passionate playing that "comes from the heart," but he lacks one himself.

In true movie fashion, the heart wins out in the end, but it's a happy ending that hasn't escaped the director's own scrutiny. "I even ask myself whether I'm being too optimistic at the end of the film," he revealed to me. Still, as much as Together can be read as a sentimentally heartwarming film about a father and son, it has subtle and sharp observations about China's changing landscape. "There's a big change going on there," Chen explained, but he was clear about what must remain. "Relationships. Nothing can replace them. They're one of the most important things we have."