Soft Film With Hard Truths

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It is an unspoken, perhaps unconscious axiom of criticism that optimistic works are dismissed as sentimental, while pessimistic works are pronounced profound. Some other time we'll munch on the reasons that critics, nestled in the comfort of their intellectual splendor, overvalue works that say life stinks. For now, we'll note that any serious film with a bright or dewy eye runs the risk of exile from the received canon of dark and Sturmy cinema.

Chen Kaige has done his time in the dungeon of film pessimism. The Chinese director's best-known works, Farewell My Concubine and Temptress Moon, are epics of loss and betrayal. Chen knows these pangs firsthand: as a teenager during the Cultural Revolution, he was forced to denounce his father, a distinguished filmmaker. But one streak in him runs deeper than despair: the need to dramatize the social process that shapes boys into men. In virtually all his films — from his 1984 Yellow Earth to his new Together — a child falls under a teacher's benign or malign spell. Chen is thus replaying the privileges and nightmares of his youth and repaying a deeper debt to his father.

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Together, based on a true story, is Chen's sunniest, ostensibly simplest film. Cheng (Liu Peiqi), a poor man from the provinces, takes his son Xiaochun (Tang Yun), 13, a violin prodigy, to Beijing in hopes of promoting the boy's career. He's gifted, no doubt, but in big-city music competitions, a bribe decides the winner. Nevertheless, Xiaochun gets a good teacher — Jiang (Wang Zhiwen), a sympathetic bohemian with a Dickens-novel quota of pet cats — and befriends an effervescent girl-on-the-make named Lili (Chen Hong, who offscreen is Chen's wife).

Eventually, Xiaochun attracts the interest of a more renowned teacher, Professor Yu (played by the director), who will coax the boy toward the career he and his father have dreamed of. Like Eliza Doolittle with her dustman dad, Xiaochun risks estrangement from his father as Jiang and then Yu assume the job of nurturing the boy's talent. For Xiaochun, each small step up in class means a giant step from his village, his childhood and the man who raised him. A boy can have so many fathers. Finally, one is enough — but which one will Xiaochun choose? That decision takes a wise child.

Predictably, the more austere critics have walloped the director for selling out to sentiment. But maybe Chen has done something daring. Here is a story with no villains. The five main characters are basically good folks, and fate doesn't bother to conspire against any of them. People make their own luck, their own troubles.

Chen Kaige does too. After many rigorous films, many fights with the censor board, he is entitled to pull a few plot strings, to pluck a few heartstrings — to make a film that wants to be liked. And isn't an audience that was nurtured on the doomsday screeds of art-house cinema entitled to vacation in the warmth of a superior film about a boy with almost too many people to love?