Screened at Toronto (Masters)

Dir: Chen Kaige. China. 2002. 116mins.

US buyers scrambled to buy Chen Kaige’s latest Chinese film when it world premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival - and it’s easy to see why. Wearing its heart on its sleeve, Together is a crowd-pleasing family drama which aims to have the same effects on the tear ducts as other blockbusting foreign weepies about kids like Cinema Paradiso, Kolya, Life Is Beautiful or The Way Home. While it’s neither as heart-wrenching nor as effective as those films, it should stand out in a crowded arthouse market as much for its fascinating insight into contemporary Chinese culture as for its muddled storyline. Chen opts for an intimate return to his homeland after his disastrous foray into English-language film Killing Me Softly. But his film is not in the same league as Life On A String or Yellow Earth, the profound works which made his name. Together is like Zhang Yimou lite, replete with the sentiments that made The Road Home such a hit. Countries where arthouse audiences embrace that level of sentiment (notably English-speaking territories) will welcome it; others will find it unexceptional. Together also plays in compretition at San Sebastian next week.

The film is the story of a man (Tang Yun) and his 13 year-old son (Liu Peiqi) Xiaochun, a brilliantly gifted violinist, who live in a provincial city far from the sophistication of Beijing. But when the two go to Beijing, so that Xiaochun can audition to enter a prestigious music school, their lives change.

At first the boy starts training with a disillusioned teacher (Wang Zhiwen) and develops a friendship with and a crush on the sexy upstairs neighbour Lili (Chen Hong). He gradually becomes estranged from his father as the stress of his music training and his fondness for Lili take over his young mind. His father persuades him to switch to another teacher, the ruthless Professor Yu (Chen Kaige himself), and Xiaochun moves in to the professor’s house in advance of an international competition. The father-son relationship comes to a head when Xiaochun sells his mother’s violin to pay for a new coat for Lili.

Together’s weakness is Chen’s narrative, which swings from one scene to the next with little continuity or even-handedness. Key moments in the drama are muted in the film and, while the emotion displayed in the finale is undeniably touching, it feels unconnected to what has come before it.

Much pleasure, nevertheless, can be gleaned from the thrilling music, the tender performances - especially by the teenage Liu Peiqi - and the portrait of professional musicians at work in China. Chen’s own character of a hard taskmaster living in a house with all the mod cons could be straight out of a US story. Indeed, the notion of art-for-art’s-sake versus competitive-art-for- commercial-gain, which is at the story’s core, could well have been learned when Chen was making Killing Me Softly.

Prod co:21 Century Shengkai Film
US dist:United Artists
Int’l sales:Moonstone Entertainment
Prods:Yang Buting, Yan Xiaoming, Li Bolun, Chen Kaige
Scr:Chen Kaige, Xue Xiao Lu
Cinematography:Jin Jiongqiu
Prod des:Cao Jiuping, Liu Luyi
Ed:Zhou Ying
Music:Zhao Ling
Main cast:Tang Yun, Liu Peiqi, Chen Hong, Wang Zhiwen, Chen Kaige