Movie: Coming of age movies are popular with audiences the world over. Seeing some youthful character strive to become something greater than they were as they break through the chains of their youth is something most of us have done, and this appeals to our own memories in most cases. In one of the more interesting such stories I've seen lately, Together, director/co-writer/producer Kaige Chen, shows the story of a 13 year old violinist in Mainland China who struggles against all odds to become an extraordinary virtuoso.
The story is contemporary, set in a time when the authorities have allowed some modernization to take place without fear of being locked away as a subversive. The story depicts a China in transition from the old ways of tradition to a more open system of capitalism, or at least a smattering of it. Young Liu Xiaochun (Yun Tang) is pushed by his father to strive for a dream as a violinist in the big city. They move to Beijing near the beginning of the movie and the culture shock is evident in both the father, Liu Cheng (Peiqi Liu), and the son. Xiaochun meets a hooker, Lili (Hong Chen), on his first day in town and is smitten by her good looks and casual manner that so contrast with his experience in his small village.
The father finds out that in order to stay in the city, his son will have to be accepted as a student by a professional teacher. No one is interested at first, until they happen across a crusty old professor, Jiang (Zhiwen Wang), who makes a living teaching talent less bumpkins who's parents are part of a rising middle to upper class. As the story progresses, he meets a new teacher, one who can bring him to his dream, played by the director himself. Between figuring out if he's following his own dream or that of his father and trying to get Lili to like him, Xiaochun and Cheng fight to secure the boy's future against soulless bureaucrats and the tides of change in modern China.
Okay, there was probably not a single element of the movie that was truly original and the themes have been done at least a hundred times before in recent years. That's not to say the movie, for all its melodramatic nature, wasn't good, it just was somewhat limited by the lack of originality. I think all the leads and major supporting cast members did excellent jobs acting with the wealth of material (just because the material wasn't original doesn't mean it was bad) provided. The story was moving and leaned very much towards being something out of Hollywood, with just enough Chinese touches to keep me watching.
So, if you're looking for a movie that combines the sentimental nature of a coming of age story with the clash between the progressive movement in China and more traditional aspects of the country, this will be a movie you to will feel is worth a rating of Highly Recommended. I had the Canadian version to review and think the domestic release will be similar by all accounts but I sure hope the problems with the audio and subtitles are worked out by the time the domestic DVD is released. The problems were few and far between but bothersome as heck when occurring.
Picture: The picture was presented in anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1 ratio color. While most Chinese movies are low budget and look bad, this one was certainly an exception to the rule. Yes, there was some grain and a few print scratches from time to time but aside from a bit of pattern noise in a couple small scenes, it looked very good.
Sound: The sound was presented with a choice of either a 5.1 Dolby Digital surround Mandarin or French audio track with optional English or French subtitles. The vocals and music were very clear this time and the music exceptionally beautiful in all instances. Each audio aspect of the film was solidly mixed with few problems. The subtitles were in large, bold white letters and easy to read. The bad news is that there were several times when the subtitles "stuck", repeating the same phrase over and over again. The first time it popped up was about a half hour into the show, after hearing different words (I don't speak Mandarin) and seeing "How Much For Your Rice?" appear several times, I figured something was wrong. The work-around for this problem is to stop your player and start it back up again but nothing else worked for me (yes, it was repeatable flaw). There were also moments when the audio track would just stop with the characters mouthing the words (the most noticeable at about an hour into the movie) and the subtitles playing but complete silence on the track. Lastly, the subtitles had a number of misspellings that stood out.
Extras: The best extra was a short (6 minute long) discussion by the director with some backing footage. He gave a bit of background to the movie (thankfully in English) and expressed his ideas about where he was coming from as well as what he was trying to achieve. There was also a trailer but no paper insert in my copy.
Final Thoughts: I'm not normally a sucker for a sappy tear jerker of a movie, especially those with what amount to a happy ending, but the various elements of the story and acting combined in such a way to make me really appreciate this one. If you can overlook the intimate look at Xiaochun's story (it's really easy to get caught up in the surface story here), you'll also see a biting commentary about the changes taking place in China, many of which are not favorable in the director's mind.