`Together’ hits right notes | AspenTimes.com

`Together’ hits right notes

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

“Together,” a Chinese film directed and co-written by Chen Kaige, is linked in my mind with “Whale Rider,” the recent New Zealand film, partly because I saw the two in a span of a few nights.

But the films have much in common: Each is about an ambitious youngster trying to establish an adult identity. Both films have an adult character who is nearly as prominent as the child, whom the child rebels against, and who ultimately helps define the child. “Together” and “Whale Rider” both do an exceptional job of portraying a foreign culture – in “Together,” it’s modern-day China, both rural and urban; in “Whale Rider,” it’s New Zealand’s contemporary Maori tribe – without knocking the viewer over the head with how exotic it is. Both films have an element of the past colliding with the future.

“Whale Rider” is getting a good mass of attention for a New Zealand production with nothing close to a star actor. I only hope that “Together,” a highly praised hit in China, finds a similar American audience, because it is a better film than “Whale Rider” – less predictable, more eccentric, far funnier. It doesn’t share with “Whale Rider” the flaw of delivering a “capital-M” message, neatly packaged.

At the same time, “Together” is deeply emotional, and embraces the fundamentals of life: parent-child relationships, the process of growing up. There are moments that are designed to tug at the heart. But the story, style and characters of “Together” are so fresh that it never feels trite or obvious.

“Together” opens in a small Chinese village, where 13-year-old Xiaochun (Tang Yun) is a violin prodigy. Xiaochun is doted on by his father Liu Cheng (Liu Peiqi), a humble but proud chef. Liu Cheng decides to sacrifice everything to give his son a chance as a musician, and the two move to sprawling, sophisticated Beijing.

Quickly, the two discover how cutthroat and expensive the classical music world is. But Liu Cheng – in a performance that mirrors that of Roberto Benigni in “Life Is Beautiful” – barges unashamedly into that world, smiling all the way. Within a day of arriving in Beijing, Liu Cheng is standing at the door of an accomplished violin teacher, the eccentric Professor Jiang (Wang Zhiwen), insisting that he take on Xiaochun as a pupil.

In the new setting, both father and son have their eyes opened, in episodes both tragic and comic. A scene where Liu Cheng plays two rice dealers against one another for his business is priceless. Xiaochun makes a friend of an attractive female neighbor who lives by the favors of her boyfriends.

Most important, however, is what has not changed: Xiaochun’s love for, and talent on, the violin, and his father’s compulsion to provide for his son the finest musical education available. As the two begin to butt heads over the direction that education should take, family secrets are revealed, character is challenged, the father-son bonds are strained. When the family relations are resolved, it is done in a manner that is unexpected, original, dramatic, satisfying and bound to leave some viewers in tears.

“Together” is showing at Paepcke Auditorium Saturday through Monday at 8:30 p.m.

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