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Distant music

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Chen Kaige, celebrated director of Yellow Earth and Farewell My Concubine, helped make Chinese cinema a celebrated national film genre in the '80s and early '90s. In this decade, however, Kaige is breaking new ground in the field of schmaltz.

In Together, Kaige combines the lump-in-the-throat sentimentality of the Hong Kong cinema with unapologetic Hollywood cheesiness. This father-and-son buddy picture tells the story of Liu Cheng (Liu Peiqi), a village short-order cook who has everything but a piece of straw dangling from his mouth to identify him as a bumpkin. Widower Cheng is determined to mold his talented 13-year-old son, Xiaochun (Tang Yun), into a great violin player and whisks him off to Beijing to compete for a musical prize.

But Cheng discovers the competition has been rigged, and enlists the eccentric Professor Jiang (Wang Zhiwen), with a house full of cats, to teach his son instead. In addition to music lessons, the wide-eyed Xiaochun has his horizons enlarged in other ways. His percolating hormones find their mark in his gorgeous neighbor, Lili (Chen Hong), who's involved in a seedy and tempestuous relationship with one in a string of rich men.

Xiaochun climbs the ladder of Beijing's musical elite, but his relationship with his father becomes distant. The music that once bonded father and son leads to their estrangement when Xiaochun stops playing his violin as an expression of love. Under the tutelage of his new professor, Xiaochun turns his focus to adulation and career. A split forms between Cheng and Xiaochun, which one senses will be quickly mended by film's end.

Kaige's Beijing is a surprisingly contemporary city of sleek apartments filled with Sharper Image gadgetry and marble shopping malls. Kaige's storytelling arc is less contemporary, following a traditional Karate Kid-style formula of talented youngsters vying for greatness and having their inner mettle tested. The initial characterization of Cheng as a holy fool clashing with chaotic Beijing life sets the tone for the veneer of light comedy laid atop Kaige's blatant sentimentality.

But Cheng's square-pants silliness soon veers dramatically onto a different track. By the film's conclusion, Cheng is a heartbroken wreck. The film descends into maudlin teariness as Xiaochun is lured farther and farther away from his father and his genuine love of music by a wealthy new teacher (played by Kaige) in Kaige's disappointingly herky-jerky composition.

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