China has long been known as a breeding ground for musical prodigies, a fact that director Chen Kaige ("Farewell My Concubine") takes as the basis for "Together." With an eye on adolescence and a sonata's worth of schmaltz, the movie explores the bond between a motherless violin phenom and his instrument -- and, by extension, his father.
Country bumpkin Cheng (Peiqi Liu) is a typical stage parent, convinced that his 13-year-old is better than his peers and just needs a chance to shine in the national spotlight. The two travel to Beijing for a violin competition, where Xiaochun (Yun Tang) finishes a lowly fifth. But Cheng's hope is only refreshed. His persistence and need for his son's success land the two in the dirty apartment of the perpetually mussed Professor Jiang (Zhiwen Wang) -- whose main attribute is an unbelievable sweep of hair that is half-Einstein, half-Lynch.
Kaige wants us to appreciate the relationship between Xiaochun and his hired mentor. But we're confused when Jiang sends his pupil off to study with a teacher who can better bring the boy fame and fortune, and excuses it by saying he's taught Xiaochun all he can. To our eyes, we haven't seen the teacher share anything with the boy beyond lovelorn life lessons. Yes, music is one part technique to three parts emotion, but surely he must have imparted something of value to Xiaochun (other than hair-care tips).
It's just a distraction tactic, though. The nut of Kaige's story is not Xiaochun's transformation from hick to maestro, but the father's slow heartbreak as he watches his son enter a world too sophisticated for Cheng to be a part of. Played with a tender goofiness by Liu, Cheng can only stand by as his son's talent takes him such places as the apartment of a gorgeous gold-digger and the antiseptic home of the best violin teacher in the city.
Cheng belongs in the noisy stalls of the farmer's market and the steamy kitchens of mediocre restaurants. The look of self-conscious horror that crosses his face whenever he realizes he's overstepped his class bounds is painfully funny.
The finale, however, is sadly pedestrian, playing on the notion that Xiaochun may be slipping out of Cheng's loving grasp. Sooner or later, somebody is going to have to make a choice between duty and feeling. Though all obvious signs point to this being a movie about a boy and his music -- and that's certainly what Kaige would have us believe -- the dominant melody ends up being one of sentimental superficiality.