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Together

Old familiar songs

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If words no longer exist to describe Chen Kaige's new movie, then it's only because someone else used them all up on other movies just like it: Together is warm, tender, sentimental, uplifting, and its characters go through the wringers of loyalty, fidelity, idealism, integrity, and so forth.


It's about a child who plays music, a father who wants him to succeed, another child who wants him to fail, and two teachers who help him to flourish. The fact that it's Chinese adds a cultural context that keeps it slightly more interesting than its clichés might otherwise allow.


Together opens in the rural village where Chun, a taciturn 13-year-old violin prodigy, lives with his plucky widower father, Cheng. Each year, young Chun wins insignificant local awards for his playing. So father and son travel to bustling Beijing, where Chun places a paltry fifth in a competition because he didn't grease the right palms. Fortunately, the cagey, eccentric Professor Jiang - a weary iconoclast who lives in a filthy apartment with a menagerie of cats - hears Chun perform and takes him on as his pupil. Jiang doesn't have connections, but he does, like Chun, have heart, which is paramount in a movie like this.


Lots of narrative distractions soon begin to jostle the course of Together: There's Lili, an haute couture material girl who lives off the sleazy generosity of neo-capitalist sugar daddies, and for whom Chun develops a costly crush; a well-connected music teacher (portrayed by Chen) who takes over when Jiang can no longer foster Chun's success; and a petulant girl prodigy who doesn't know the meaning of "you're not the best any more."


The parts of Together set in the family's tenement slum in Beijing throw back to Hollywood urban melodramas of the '50s. (In an American version, Jiang would be played by an ethnic Paul Muni or E.G. Robinson.) The rest of Together is a more modern formula, and no wonder: Chen studied in the U.S. in the 1980s. His movies, like Farewell My Concubine and The Emperor and the Assassin, tend to be less provocative than those of his more political peers, although Together takes a few pokes at the Cultural Revolution and strikes some quick anti-modernist blows (a TV remote control and an orange juicer symbolize Chun's seduction). The musical selections range from Tchaikovsky and Vivaldi to George Gershwin, whose "It Ain't Necessarily So," played on the violin, wryly underscores a moment of Lili's desperate materialism.


At its occasional best, Together is a modest Baedeker of some Beijing lives and locales, most of them probably more contrived than authentic. Chen's protracted ending builds to a well-staged finale in which Chun and his rival each gets to play luminously for the audience that matters most. Yun Tang, who actually plays the violin, performs nicely as Chun, especially during the boy's teary traumas. And as the coolly sardonic Professor Jiang, Zhiwen Wang, who may be the Chinese cinema's only serio-comic Method actor, is an errant pleasure to watch. In Mandarin, with subtitles. AAb (2 and 1/2 projectors)

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