Together With You Review

Contrary to the generally held opinion that Chen Kaige has made a film for a western audience, Together (retitled as Together With You for its UK release, presumably to distinguish it from Lukas Moodysson's film) is very much a Chinese film that speaks more clearly to a Chinese audience than a western audience, if the western critics poor response is measured against the huge success of the film in China. If anything, the film is highly critical of the way western values have failed to make any improvement to the lives of Chinese people. Together has none of the epic historical spectacle of Farewell My Concubine or The Emperor and the Assassin, so beloved of European film festivals and western film audiences, but after the creative and critical disaster of his first English-language feature, Killing Me Softly, Chen has wisely regrouped his forces and gone back to his roots, to the subjects and themes that inspire him most – paternal influences, the liberating force of music and the conflict between art and making a material improvement to people’s lives.

13-year old Xiaochun (Yun Tang) is something of a musical prodigy, a virtuoso violinist from a young age who has been encouraged every step of the way by his father (Peiqi Liu). His father is a poor man, but he will spare no expense to help his son develop the talent he has been born with. He enters him into him into local talent contests, not just through pride in his son’s abilities, but through a genuine desire to see his son realize his potential. He is aware how much playing the violin means to the boy, who lost his mother at a young age and puts his heart into his playing when he thinks of her.

Chun’s abilities are spotted and he is given the opportunity to play in the big city – Beijing. However, even when bribery and favouritism play against the young boy and the meagre funds that his father has gathered together soon disappear, neither the boy nor his father are prepared to give up on their dream. With a tutor who is not much help to him (Zhiwen Wang), Chun finds inspiration in a beautiful neighbour, Lili (Hong Chen) who captivates the boy and is an encouragement to his playing as well as a distraction. His father is worried that he will not achieve the success he believes his son deserves.

It’s become something of a cliché to say of certain films that the music becomes a character in itself, but in Together it most certainly does. Much as books were something sacred and special to Dai Sije’s characters in Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, music fulfilled a similar need for Kaige in the intellectually barren days of the Cultural Revolution, and the importance of music has never been as beautifully depicted by the director of Farewell My Concubine as it is here in Together. The music and performances are simply staggering, pervading the film, eloquent and emotionally uplifting. But again, the idea of conflict is apparent between the boy’s love for his art and his desire to have a real material impact on people’s lives – in this case his beautiful neighbour, Lili – an overriding theme in almost all Chen’s films. Chun needs to decide which is more important, even if it means destroying the dreams the father has for the boy and turning his back on the music and playing that means so much to him.

At times it’s true that the characters never really come to life – a poor failing in a film that is supposed to be based on a true story – they are thinly painted and all much too nice, but one shouldn’t overly criticise the film for being too generous towards human nature. There is never really that much conflict or adversity to overcome and we are never really in any doubt to the outcome of the story, but there are revelations and unexpected conclusions are reached. Much like the ending of Zhang Yimou’s The Road Home, the sincerity of the sentiment expressed is more important than the calculated cinematic manner in which it is presented. Chen Kaige’s Together satisfies every bit as much as Zhang Yimou’s marvellous film and it should be recommended.

The picture quality is excellent. There are some minor white flecks of dustspots here and there, but nothing troublesome. There is also evidence of some edge-enhancement that has been applied to the transfer, which causes some artifacting around objects. Otherwise, colours are strong, blacks are solid and there is a pleasant warmth to the image.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is reasonably good. Dialogue is mainly centre speaker based and slightly muffled on occasions. The film however, has as an excellent sound design and comes to life particularly on the invigorating musical pieces throughout the film. There is a good deal of use made of the surrounds for directional effects and echo.

Subtitles are placed slightly too high into the picture frame, but are clear, readable and optional.

The only extra feature on the MGM US Region 1 release is a trailer.

Region Comparisons
There are a number of editions of the film available internationally.

Chinese Edition
The WA Chinese R0 edition is an inexpensive option, presenting the film on single-layer disc with a non-anamorphic 1.85:1 picture and English subtitles. The picture quality is good, but a little soft, not greatly detailed and a little too bright. DD 2.0 and DD 5.1 tracks are provided and are good, but have none of the quality of the Region 1 releases.

Canadian Edition
The Canadian Region 1 release from TVA Films has what appears to be exactly the same transfer as the US MGM Region 1, but it comes across slightly better on the dual-layer disc. The MGM release looks slightly sharper, but has evident edge-enhancement. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack on the Canadian is the best on the three releases – greater dynamics on the musical score, the range is deeper with finer detail and dialogue is bright and clear. There is also a French language dub. The TVA release also includes a 6-minute interview with director Chen Kaige. However the Canadian release cannot be recommended as there are serious problems with the subtitles, which are badly timed on one or two occasions, sometimes wider than the picture and there are also numerous misspellings or dropping of letters and punctuation. There is also a one-minute gap in the sound at one point around the layer change. The slightly better picture and sound quality and the short interview are not enough to make up for the subtitle faults.

United Kingdom Edition
The UK Region 2 release from Momentum is presented on a single-layer disc, anamorphic 1.85:1, with only Dolby Digital 2.0 sound and fixed subtitles. With PAL speed-up, the film runs to 114 mins. The picture quality is good, with fewer of the compression artefacts seen on the MGM release, although edge-enhancement is again visible in some scenes. Colours, brightness and constrast are excellent, very similar to the Region 1 releases. The picture on the UK looks the sharpest of all releases, but it is marginal and probably just a consequence of the increased PAL resolution. Subtitles are yellow, using a small font, but are not optional. They seem however to be player-generated and not burnt onto the print. The audio is strong and clear, but the DD 2.0 audio is no match for the 5.1 mixes on the other releases. Extra features consist of just the Trailer for the film. Overall, it's a typically basic, but fairly solid release from Momentum.

Screen captures from each release below. China release first, Canada second, United States third and UK release fourth.

Frankly, although I must to confess to being a huge fan of Chen Kaige’s work, I’m baffled by the critical reception this film has received. I think critics have come to the film with unreasonable expectations – this is not a Chen Kaige epic in the form of Farewell My Concubine or The Emperor and the Assassin, but neither is it a compromise to western cinematic expectations. Chen has steered away from the current trend for Asian neo-minimalism – there are enough Hou Hsiao-hsiens, Tsai Ming-Liangs and Jia Zhang-kes out there – but Together is nevertheless a very Chinese film, sitting comfortably and favourably alongside the best of modern Zhang Yimou – Happy Times, Not One Less, The Road Home. It may not be a radical departure for either the director or a progression of Chinese cinema, but it is a widening of his range, a well-made film with personal themes and a crowd-pleasing experience that is unlikely to disappoint. The Canadian would be the best video and audio transfer were it not for the problems mentioned above, so all releases considered the US MGM Region 1 must be the recommended version.

A comprehensive look at Chen Kaige's work on DVD can be read here.

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