It’s a sad truth, but talent isn’t enough to see you succeed in the wider world. In fact, all having talent means is that unscrupulous people will seek to harness themselves to you in the hope of achieving the kind of success which they are incapable of obtaining for themselves. 13 year old Xiaochun is about a learn a series of difficult life lessons in Chen Kaige’s Together (和你在一起, Hé nǐ zài yīqǐ), not least of them what true fatherhood means and whether the pursuit of fame and fortune is worth sacrificing the very passion that brought you success in the first place.
Xiaochun lives with his father Liu Cheng in a small rural town where he is known for his prowess with the fiddle. In fact, he even gets called in to play some calming violin music at the birth of a local bigwig’s child. After a little boy emerges safely into the world, the bigwig tries to give Liu some money which he refuses but Xiaochun later takes. The big wig congratulates Xiaochun on his understanding of how the world works, unlike his honest and sentimental father.
However, what Liu wants for his son is success so he takes the boy to the big city and enters him in a violin contest. He comes fifth but the contest is rigged in favour of donors to the school and no one wants to take on a poor country bumpkin for a pupil. Eventually Liu convinces an eccentric, lonely professor, Jiang, to give Xiaochun lessons and the pair start to build up a paternal relationship. Xiaochun also makes friends with the beautiful but equally eccentric woman from upstairs, Lili, while his father tries to find work to pay for all these lessons. Eventually Liu ends up at a swanky recital and tries to get Xiaochun to switch to the more successful professor Yu who’s all cold calculation and designer sweaters. This sudden bid for mainstream success drives a wedge between father and son who have very different ideas of what it means to be a “successful” person.
Together isn’t quite the film it seems to set out to be. You’d expect professor Jiang’s broken heart to take more of a centre stage but no sooner have we invested our time in Jiang’s back story of tragic romance than Xiaochun is swept away to the corporate music factory that is Yu’s upscale apartment. We’ve already seen how money and status are everything in this game, donate big bucks to the school and your kid gets the shiny trophy regardless of their actual talent. A depressingly realistic scene right after the contest sees Jiang trying to give a lesson to a clearly disinterested boy while his trashily dressed mother yells at someone on a blinged up cellphone from the other room. When the pair angrily declare they won’t be coming back, the boy is strangely grateful to Jian for “letting him quit” this annoying hobby that his mum obviously made him practice as a kind of status symbol despite the fact he has no ear for music.
Liu is just too bumpkinish for Beijing life, he’s simple and honest which are not good qualities to have in a big city. He insists on wearing a big red hat all the time which screams “not local”, and he even keeps his money in it so, of course, it gets stolen. That said, it’s Liu who wants his son to have the big bucks and a secure life of the kind that Yu can offer him. He sincerely wants this for Xiaochun and is prepared to get out of his way if necessary. Jiang wanted to teach him music and would have done it for free. Yu wants to use him to bolster his own success and is prepared to manipulate him in extremely cruel ways in order to get what he wants out of him. Tellingly, Yu already had a prize pupil living his apartment who is now forced to compete with Xiaochun for Yu’s attention. Now there’s a better prospect on the table, she is being abandoned despite a host of promises and all her hard work. Yu is a businessman, Jiang is an artist.
Now the boy has to choose between three fathers and three futures as he considers just giving up and going home with his father, giving in to Yu’s corporate demands and losing the love he had for playing his instrument in a simple and heartfelt way, or following Jiang’s teachings which, ironically, are all about following the heart. After an extremely late and cruelly presented revelation, Xiaochun has even more to think about with this question but ultimately what matters is heart more than money as a hand knitted sweater proves warmer than an expensive fur coat.
Together has a number of structural problems that frustrate its passage either as a Hollywood influenced feel good tale of a poor boy and his violin or a gritty indie movie about how talent doesn’t matter in a world ruled by social status and reputation (which is sort of like a futures market in an odd way, everyone buying into something which doesn’t quite exist). Liu and Xiaochun meet a lot of nice “salt of the Earth” people in the big city (except for Yu) but are perpetually locked out of the next stage of the game through not having the right connections. Liu, in his simple and honest way, doesn’t understand this so he’s able to pressure right through it but his son who is more pure hearted but also practical finds navigating its series of traps and temptations endlessly confusing. Edging into sentimentality in the final third, Chen can’t quite bring his sonata to the crescendo he seems to be aiming for but still finishes with a warmly received round of applause.
Together was released in the UK by Momentum under the title Together with You (presumably to avoid confusion with Lukas Moodyson’s film of the same title released not long before) which is a more literal, if slightly awkward, translation of the original Chinese. The disc itself and menu screen both remain “Together”. The UK disc may be technically OOP but the film is also available in the US from MGM.