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Powerful enough to be tender

Together (PG) (116 min.) Here is a movie not embarrassed by strong, basic emotions like love and ambition. It has the courage to face them head-on, instead of edging up to them through irony or disarming them with sitcom comedy. Chen Kaige's Together has the nerve to end with melodramatic sentiment _ and get away with it, because it means it. Expect lots of damp eyes in the audience.

Together tells the story of Liu Xiaochun (Tang Yun), a 13-year-old violin prodigy who lives in a provincial town with his father, Liu Cheng (Liu Peiqi). His father, a cook, decides Xiaochun must advance his studies in Beijing. So he takes them both there, with his meager savings hidden in his red peasant's hat. He persuades a violin teacher named Jiang (Wang Zhiwen) to take the boy as a student.

Jiang is almost a recluse, a once-talented pianist whose heart was broken by a girl; he has retreated to a shabby apartment with his cats and his dirty laundry. As he tutors the boy, the boy tutors him, lecturing him on his hygiene and self-pity. The two become close friends, but one day Xiaochun's father decides it is time for him to move up to a better teacher _ the famous Yu Shifeng, played by director Chen Kaige himself. Jiang is a realist and agrees with this change, and the leave-taking between the two friends is handled in a touching, unexpected way.

The big city is exciting for young Xiaochun, who meets a woman in her 20s named Lili, played by Chen Hong, who in real life is the director's wife. She tips him for carrying her bag, hires him to play at a party, takes him shopping, and befriends him.

The young violinist's goal is to be chosen by Professor Yu for an important international contest. A girl named Lin Yu, another of Yu's students, is his rival, and both the professor and the girl tell him secrets that force him to re-evaluate his world and values. Torn between recognition and his love for his father, he finds a solution in the last scene that is physically impossible (unless the symphony orchestra is playing very, very loudly) but is the perfect outcome for the story _ an emotional high point that's dramatic and heartwarming.

For Chen Kaige, Together is a comeback after the extravagant Temptress Moon (1996) and The Emperor and the Assassin (1999). His earlier credits include the masterful Farewell My Concubine, about two members of the Peking Opera who survive through a time of political tumult. Together is powerful in an old-fashioned, big-studio kind of way. Strange, but moviegoers who avoid "art films" and are simply in the mood for a good entertaining movie would be better off with this Chinese film than with most of the multiplex specials.

_ ROGER EBERT, Chicago Sun-Times

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