Mediocre relationship drama surrounded with terrific classical music renditions.
Together, or He ni zai yi qi in its native China is a strange little film, and one in where it's not really the narrative elements that will be the driving factor for any enjoyment gleaned from it. Xiaochun (Yun Tang) hails from a backwater Chinese town where he's made a name for himself through his great skills on the violin, the only memento left by his mother when she flew the coup with Xiaochun a mere babe.
Although he's not the sharpest knife in the drawer, his father Cheng (Peiqi Liu) seems to have done a good job in single handedly raising a considerate boy who has won prizes for his playing for the last five years. This success leads to an invitation to a national contest in Beijing, which father and son accept. Despite playing well Xiaochun places fifth, which Cheng learns from an overheard conversation is more due to how much money the families have 'donated' to the school rather than strictly merit based.
One of the overheard parties is Prof. Jiang (Zhiwen Wang), who Cheng badgers into taking Xiaochun as a private student. The good Professor is a strange character, unkempt and slovenly with an impressive collection of cats. Haunted by the mistakes of relationships past he claims he only has his music to comfort him. The lessons prove as helpful for Jiang as they do for Xiaochun, loosening up somewhat as he reveals details of his character. Meanwhile Cheng takes manual labour jobs to pay for the lessons and their cramped apartment.
Xiaochun grows friendly with neighbour Lili (Hong Chen), a woman earning her living largely by dating rich businessmen. Drawn to her enthusiasm and beauty, both of which she has in abundance, Xiaochun soon grows to think of her as an elder sister. Cheng initially takes a dim view of this but his attentions are soon diverted back to getting Xiaochun onto the world stage and earning big money. To this end he places Xiaochun into the care of Prof. Yu (Kaige Chen, also the director).
If there's one very laudable aspect of Together it's that it efficiently dodges many of the story genotypes you might expect it to go down. It seems to try to set up Prof. Yu as a harsh, nasty teacher which would prompt Xiaochun to return to Jiang's side then take on Yu's prodigy in some crazy Karate Kid inspired duel. This never materialises. There's more than a slight suggestion that Lili and Cheng may end up together. This never materialises.
That none of this materialises is only a problem when it becomes apparent that none of the story strands that it opens are ever going to be resolved in any meaningful way. The only relationship that is really tested is Xiaochun and Cheng's, and the main catalyst for this comes from a rather leftfield final reel deus ex machina revelation that so unpredictable that it ends up being faintly ridiculous, souring the otherwise sweet ending that the accomplished acting from all concerned and the genuine feeling of warmth between the characters would otherwise produce. The emotions of the film are undeniably heightened by the orchestral soundtrack, this movie being one where the soundtrack and story are more obviously intertwined than others. The renditions of the works throughout is little short of exemplary and ought to stir the soul of the listener, possibly more than the plot alongside it warrants.
Of course, life itself rarely resolves itself into tightly knit stories that fit into 100 minutes of cinema. Individual characters can have profound effects on your life without ever meeting each other and going out for pancakes. Threads are left hanging, friendships ebb and flow without necessarily joining the same stream. This doesn't necessarily make Together a more realistic character piece as despite sterling efforts from all involved there's not enough depth to any of them to care a great deal about them. There are worse offenders for sure, but viewing this so close to the superlative Wilbur (Wants to kill himself) shows the true depth and complexity that movie characters can have and the same depth of feeling just isn't at all present here.
With the plot taking a backseat there's two things that can be said to be uniformly positive. The soundtrack as mentioned is flawless and anyone with a passing interest in classical music will be well pleased with this movie, especially as it looks so pretty to go with it. Chen's cinematography is on occasion utterly remarkable and never less than proficient. To be fair to it, the simple fact it's located in China gives it an edge over many films as it's an underused yet fascinating location. Xiaochun's home village looks like a provincial picture postcard and it's sudden juxtaposition with the hustle of Beijing city shows up the culture clash that must be hugely more confusing than Westerners can imagine, especially with China's slide to it's bizarre capitalist communism hybrid that's taking hold.
Looking great and sounding great may be the formula for a successful pop career but it's not quite enough to be a successful film. While it's not exactly unenjoyable in a gentle and meandering way exactly what we're supposed to take away from it remains a bit of a mystery. Of course, if you can't stand classical music then you'll get even less out of this film than we did. Not the strongest recommendation to seek out but if you want something a little different from the usual fare you might find this a refreshing change, but I doubt it'll change your worldview any.
Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 3/5 TippyMarks.
Peiqi Liu (Liu Cheng)
Hong Chen (Lili)
Zhiwen Wang (Prof. Jiang)
Kaige Chen (Prof. Yu Shifeng)
Qiang Chen (Hui)
Qing Zhang (Lin Yu)