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Wednesday, April 30, 2003

Bowing to the tried and tested


Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Japanese title: Peking Violin
Director: Chen Kaige
Running time: 117 minutes
Language: Mandarin
Currently showing

There was a time in China when touching a Western musical instrument was cause for punishment. Director Chen Kaige knows the era firsthand: He was one of thousands of educated, urban youths forcibly sent to work in the countryside when the Cultural Revolution swept through the nation and Western books, instruments and art objects were burned by the Red Guards.

News photo
Liu Peiqi and Tang Yun in "Together"

Now, almost 30 years later, Chen's latest work "Together (released in Japan as 'Peking Violin')" is about a child-prodigy violinist and his father. The China depicted here is the dazzling, commercial China of today where parents have the means -- and the freedom -- to shower their offspring with everything "Western," from Game Boys to music lessons. Unlike in the past, children in modern China are free to be ambitious and to pursue their art in a fiercely competitive environment.

"Together" is not intended to be a political story, but it does provoke thought on the radical changes taking place in Chinese politics and society, especially as portrayed on screen. For example, only a decade ago, the sight of a policeman in a Chinese film immediately spelled brutality. In "Together," there's just one scene involving the police -- and they are sent off to look for the violinist when he gets lost in the bustle of Beijing Station.

Typical of a Chen film, his comments on society weave a backdrop for the personal relationships that unfold against it. Not so typically, however, the relationships in this film lack the conflict and emotional contradictions that so often torture Chen's characters. "Together" is about love, but that love is solely defined in terms of the musical talent of a 13-year-old boy and the men who want to nurture or monopolize it.

The character who displays the most complexities is the boy himself. Xiaochun (Tang Yun) is a child prodigy plagued with the prodigy dilemma: If he were less talented, would he be less loved by the world? Not even his own father, Cheng (Liu Peiqi), can reassure him, since he's the one who toiled and saved to get the two of them to Beijing, then schemed and sacrificed to get Xiaochun under the tutelage of music professors. But the motherless Xiaochun secretly longs for someone who will love him beyond his violin, and latches onto Lili (Chen Hong), a high-class prostitute and the most beautiful woman he has ever laid eyes on.

The father knows little of his son's inner turmoil. To him, it's all very simple: Xiaochun has a great gift that must be developed at all costs, and he, as Xiaochun's father, is happy to do anything he can. Cheng is a skilled chef and an artist in his own right, but the only work he can find in Beijing is delivering fast food. Unperturbed, he takes the job to pay for his son's lessons and pulls double shifts, initially hiring Professor Jiang (Wang Zhiwen), a musical genius turned cranky recluse, to tutor his son.

But just when sweet Xiaochun and the cynical professor are starting to warm to each other, Cheng pulls his son out. He has discovered another, more powerful teacher in the famous Professor Hui (played by Chen Kaige himself) who has a reputation for sending many prodigies to the glittering international stage. Hui agrees to takes on Xiaochun as a live-in disciple and, in the process, elbows Cheng out of the boy's life, seeking to monopolize and control the boy's gift. Cheng vaguely realizes what Hui is up to, but tells himself it's the best thing for his son and announces that he plans to return to the countryside to find more work to finance what he hopes is an imminent international debut.

"Together" comes close on the heels of Chen's disastrous "Killing Me Softly" (starring Heather Graham and Ralph Fiennes), which marked his venture into Western filmmaking and earned the film the Western label of being "a major turkey." Now back in China, this time around it looks like the director has decided to play it safe. Chen, who unabashedly explored so many levels of passion in "Farewell My Concubine," is content this time to hit our tried-and-tested emotional hot spots, pour on the sentiment and move the story along its straight and narrow path -- sometimes with whip in hand lest it deviate by even the slightest degree.

And having assembled a stellar cast featuring real-life child violinist Tang Yun, Chen himself and his wife, Chen Hong, the film brims with confidence. Maybe even too much confidence. Symbolic of this are several scenes of Professor Hui in his study, lecturing to Xiaochun while a tasteful, black-and-white enlargement of himself presides on the desk. There's no denying the effect and appeal of "Together," but in the end, it's hard not to see the image of Chen Kaige overlapping that of his character, Professor Hui: Charismatic, domineering and manipulative, he -- and his film -- commands respect without inspiring real love.

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