String Theory


Chen Kaige’s Together reprises themes that the director has previously riffed on: adolescent rites of passage, teacher-student relationships, music as salvation and rebellion, the rituals of performance. Same old song, then, but in a different key. With this violin-whiz inspirational, a filmmaker who began his career with mournful, ambient tone poems takes an all-out stab at a middlebrow pop hit.

Straight from the provinces, pensive 13-year-old Xiaochun (Tang Yun) and his peasant father, Liu Cheng (Liu Peiqi), arrive in Beijing for a violin competition to find that, in the big city, it’s a matter of pulling—and not sawing—strings. But with simpering bumpkin persistence, Liu hounds the reclusive, disheveled Professor Jiang (Wang Zhiwen) into taking on Xiaochun. The ensuing homiletic imperatives (“Feel the music in your heart!”) and table-turning huzzahs (student motivates teacher to comb hair and clean up after cats) are enough to make you wish Isabelle Huppert’s taskmistress was in charge. Gold-digging glamourpuss neighbor Lili (Chen Hong) exists mainly as a receptacle for Xiaochun’s puppy-dog devotion.

Together glosses over the Sixth Generation theme of spiritual tumult in the face of growing materialism. Even Xiaochun’s unworldly dad doesn’t think twice about ditching mad-haired, bohemian Jiang when he encounters the distinguished, career-making Professor Yu (played by the director himself). There’s potential for a richer meditation than Chen seems willing to undertake—especially since his subject is Western classical music, a forbidden pleasure during his Cultural Revolution boyhood. But surface luster is paramount: While the setting doesn’t allow for his usual money shots (no open vistas or brocaded dens), his present-day Beijing is an almost fairy-tale world of cozily shabby courtyards, amber light poised to flood into any given interior.

Mawkishly clichéd as it is, Together is an odder hybrid than it first appears—at once populist and deeply cynical about the price of popularity. (It’s hard not to see this conflict in the context of the director’s recent losing streak. His last film was the Joseph Fiennes-Heather Graham erotic thriller Killing Me Softly, destined never to appear at a theater near you.) Contrary to the rules of the Western musical-prodigy heart tugger, Xiaochun’s talent, despite a vague mystical tint, is relatively unromanticized. The kid’s passion for music is less evident than his reluctance to commit to the punitive life of the pro entertainer (see also the grueling Beijing Opera apprenticeships in Farewell My Concubine). In the end, Together argues that to offer one’s art up for public consumption is to risk contamination—a peculiar message for a movie that so badly wants to be loved.

While Guy Maddin’s brilliant Dracula envisions the Count as a lusty seducer, there’s nothing remotely svelte or sexy about the antiheroes of Hong Kong gyonshi (“hopping vampires”) movies—bloodsuckers more Frankenstein than Dracula in their potato-sack-race body language. In Vampire Hunters, an uninspired addition to the generally endearing subgenre, the scraggly-haired, maggot-faced, fire-breathing creature can draw blood from its victims at five paces via a suction-like special power. There are also four heroes, each named for a meteorological phenomenon that he can unleash at will (and which, as a result, features prominently in the fight scenes): Rain, Lightning, Thunder, and Wind (they forgot Dry Ice). B-movie vet Wellson Chin, directing from a script by Tsui Hark (who might have considered a pseudonym, except he’s also credited as producer), can barely conceal his boredom. The finale is a near-abstract mess (decapitation, impalation, Alien birth)—in an empathic gesture, the filmmakers end it all with a few sticks of TNT.

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