What does music mean? Its an interesting question and one posed with grace and not a little irony by Chen Kaige in TOGETHER. Using the backdrop of the uneasy cultural shifts in contemporary China and the ever mysterious dynamics of the father-son relationship, he has brought forth film that is deeply affecting and rapturously beautiful.
The father is Cheng, a simple cook whose only child, Chun, is a violin prodigy. At 13, he.s won every prize there is to be had in his village playing the violin left behind when he and his father were abandoned by his mother when he was two. With his life savings in his hat, a letter from a music academy, and a burning desire to have his son succeed, Cheng leaves the tranquil village behind for the maelstrom of Beijing, not stopping to consider the obstacles he faces or whether his son loves music as much so much as he wants to please his father.
Politics are on the back burner, at least that practiced by the government. In the world of high-stakes, competitive music, there is another sort of politics at work, one that can pit talent against money, as in bribes disguised as something else. The music, though, is what ultimately matters and the people father and son and met in Beijing reflect different aspects of what music can do. Lili, the woman of questionable virtue with whom Chun is smitten, pays him to play for her, to pass the time with something diverting. Professor Jiang, his first teacher, sees the solace of music as a thing of beauty for its own sake in a life devoid of anything else to care about. Professor Yu, played by Chen himself, tells his students that music is nothing unless it is played with emotion, has none to give himself to the students he propels onto the world stage and lucrative concert dates. Yet when he recalls for his students an incident from his youth, when he and a friend listened in secret to the then-government banned Vivaldi, there is a world of revelation about what lurks beneath.
All of Chen..s characters, co-written with Xue Xiao Liu, have this fascinating mix of contradictions as each has come to terms with life in his or her own way. His actors subsume those contradictions into fully realized human beings who are all somehow adrift until Chun and his father enter their lives.
Peiqi Liu as Cheng has an open face and a smile as big as all outdoors, and while thinks nothing of abasing himself to get his son the best teacher, he gives Cheng such earnest steel that you never mistake him for a weakling. He and Yun Tang as Chun bring a spirited warmth to their scenes, interacting with a sweetness can warm the cockles of even the coldest heart. As Lili, Hong Chen sparkles as a frenetic floozy who doesnt just live for today, she lives for the next five minutes. All faux charm and designer clothes cultivating rich men while falling for one whose talk is much bigger than his bank account, Hong adds a gloss of vulnerability that seems to come from a loneliness Lili doesnt realize she feels. Zhiwen Wang has the plum role as Jiang. An eccentric surrounded by cats and dust in his cramped apartment, he sports hair with a mind of its own and a mocking attitude that spares no one, not even himself. Its with an exquisite false earnestness that he asks one of his students, the spoiled and distinctly untalented son of Beijings new bourgeoisie, if he knows that he hasnt played one note on key. But it is Jiang at his most sincere that infuses one of the films most lyrical sequences. When he and Chun, who has been taken from him as a student, play one last duet together, Chen bathes the scene in an ethereal golden light as teacher and student speak with music about their feelings in a way that custom and culture in China doesnt easily allow. There is another kind of light in Zhiwen’s eyes, one of sadness and pride, the former for what hes losing and the latter for what hes accomplished.
TOGETHERs music is as sumptuous as its story. Pieces from Western classical and baroque, to traditional Chinese folk music and the best of contemporary Chinese composers carry the story along as effectively as the dialogue. (Chun’s solos are performed by Tang Rong, who makes a cameo appearance as one of Yu’s former pupils who has made it big in the eyes of everyone but Yu.) But the music in question is more than what is played on any instrument, it is the music of the soul and never presented better than here.