Undoing Mao's work
reviewed by Steve Sailer
The American Conservative, July 14, 2003
"Together" is an optimistic little Mandarin language film about the Westernization of the Chinese soul from the director of the 1993 hit "Farewell, My Concubine," Chen Kaige. In 1966, Mao's Red Guard smashed up his family's collection of Western classical records and forced young Chen to publicly denounce his filmmaker father as a running dog counter-revolutionary.
Since Mao went to his reward, European art music has rebounded tremendously in China. While classical music is slowly withering in the West, it is finding a new home in the East.
Asia has produced countless young technical virtuosos, but "Together" acknowledges that often their nimble fingers and admirable work ethics have not been matched by the emotional depths required by the 19th Century Romantic repertoire.
In "Together," a working class father and his 13-year-old son move to Beijing to find a violin teacher who can help the prodigy fulfill his staggering potential.
The lad soon develops a crush on an adorable neighbor named Lili, a courtesan played by Chen Hong, the director's wife. Unlike all the Asian beauties in Hollywood movies these days, Lili isn't into kung fu fighting. She seems more likely to launch into Rodgers & Hammerstein's "I Enjoy Being a Girl" than to kick bad guys.
Lili owns a poster of her role model, Marilyn Monroe's Lorelei Lee in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," but this brunette gold-digger has a heart of gold. She truly loves her boyfriend, a businessman who turns out to be neither rich nor faithful.
She treats the kid fiddler like a little brother, but he is smitten. When they happen upon her boyfriend dining with another woman, she rushes off for some shopping therapy, trying on an extravagant fur coat.
Meanwhile, the boy's endearingly bumptious father has talked a famous star-making violin instructor, played by the director Chen, into giving his boy an audition.
The maestro already has an adolescent girl pupil living with his family in their spacious high-rise apartment. While her technique is flawless, she lacks the fiery passions the music demands.
At the try-out, the loving father is shocked to discover his son's violin case is empty. The boy had sold the instrument upon which his entire future depends to buy Lili the fur coat she'd admired. Strikingly, the professor decides the boy isn't just another dutiful automaton like his current protégé, but a true romantic who can do justice to Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto.
Some American critics have praised "Together" for attacking modern China for becoming too materialistic, too conformist, too American. But that merely reflects the self-absorbed ignorance of anti-Western Westerners who confuse the unworldly Tibetan Buddhists with the worldly Chinese. The Chinese have never needed foreigners to teach them how to be materialistic.
Instead, Chen hopes Western classical music can educate his people in spirituality and individualism. "One of the biggest differences between Chinese and Western culture," Chen said in an interview with MovieWeb.com, "is that we don't have religion. We don't worship anything. Western classical music has elements of love and forgiveness that come from religion. Chinese music is very intellectual, very exotic, but there is no love. You don't feel warm after you listen to it."
The cult of the Romantic hero, as exemplified by virtuosi like Franz Liszt, first emerged in a Christian culture whose theology valued each unique soul, rather than a Confucian culture that emphasized orderly social relations.
"I always hope one day we'll see real individuals in Chinese society," Chen remarked. "But we have to hope for the young generation; it's too late for my generation to become real individuals. 'Individual' is a bad word in China…. Why did I denounce my father? Because of the fear I would be kicked out of society."
Still, as admirable as "Together" is in intent, the lead role requires more than Tang Yun, or any 13-year-old, could be expected to deliver. It's easy to cast a film about a pianist because you can just shoot your movie star's face looking soulful, then cut to a close-up of some anonymous musician's hands tickling the ivories. Violin talent, though, is much harder to fake because a fiddler keeps his hands inconveniently close to his face.
So, Chen had to find a youth who was both an outstanding violinist and had "very sad eyes," then try (with only partial success) to teach him to radiate rare intensity of feeling.
Granted, the boy is at least as expressive as the opaque Adrien Brody is in "The Pianist." The Oscar-winner's blank stares, however, were directed toward scenes of historic horror, which encouraged the audience to imagine the pianist must be feeling something profound on the inside. In contrast, the upwardly mobile world the violinist gazes upon steadily is rather cheerful and lacking in incident, making it hard to for us to impute that he's feeling thunderously Romantic emotions.
Rated PG. Suitable for children who can stand subtitles.