116 mins, opening in cinemas on 11 September 2003
(This review originally appeared in the NSW Law Society Journal).
Chinese director Chen Kaige is better known for his beautiful and
sometimes epic historical dramas (including Temptress Moon from 1996,
Farewell my Concubine from 1993, and Yellow Earth from 1984). But this
is a contemporary drama set in today’s Beijing. In fact it might be
better described as a “melodrama” in its original sense: a drama with
music accompanying the action. And what music! Virtuoso violin
played mainly by Chinese-born US-based Tang Rong suffuses the film. As
in true melodrama, it makes the film a gloriously emotional experience.
This is the story of a young musician as he pursues his studies and
explores his talent. As the film opens, Xiaochun is 13, and a
brilliantly gifted violinist. Tang Yun, who plays Xiaochun, is a gifted
violinist himself and plays in many of the scenes.
Xiaochun lives in a small county town with his father, Liu Cheng, who’s
a cook and a bit of a country bumpkin. Liu Chen loves his son very
much, and desperately wants fame and fortune for him as a concert
violinist. As he constantly reminds everyone, Xiaochun has won every
provincial violin prize. But for Xiaochun to achieve his full
potential, he must study in the big city. So Xiaochun and Liu Chen pack
up and leave the country for the big city.
In Beijing, Xiaochun begins learning right away. He learns about coming
5th in competitions, he learns about dealing with cranky and reluctant
teachers, and, when he meets a beautiful and flighty young woman (Lili,
played by Chen Hong, the director’s wife), he begins to learn about the
opposite sex. His father, too, learns about life in the big city. And
there is much more for Liu Cheng and Xiaochun to learn about themselves.
Though sheer persistence and optimism, Liu Cheng manages to get a
violin teacher for his son – a wonderful teacher who teaches Xiaochun
about playing from the heart. But Liu Cheng is impatient for success,
and soon finds a new teacher for Xiaochun. Professor Yu (the director,
Chen Kaige) has a reputation for developing young payers in to
musicians of great international renown. But will he be good for
the sensitive Xiaochun?
Through the eyes of Xiaochun and Liu Cheng, Chen Kaige is able to show
us the familiar dichotomy of the country vs the city. But he also
examines what is happening to China now that capitalism, competition
and consumerism are the new way of life: “We accept targeted
contributions to offset costs,” says a music school judge.
Lili is obsessed by money and possessions and is ruining her life by
accepting money from men in return for her favours. She draws Xiaochun
into this complex world. Liu Cheng gives up his traditional chef’s role
to deliver fast food from the back of a bike. He becomes caught up in a
quest for his son’s fame and fortune, not realising that it may not
bring him fulfilment or happiness. And Xiaochun discovers that in order
for him to win a competition, someone else must fail.
Beijing is changing physically too. The old “hutongs” or traditional
small-common courtyard communities are being bulldozed for high-rise
apartments. People used to share amenities and decisions. Now things
are different. In a series of funny but telling scenes, Xiaochun’s
teacher and a woman across the courtyard argue bitterly about where a
pile of coal should be placed and whether one of them is stealing the
The story of Xiaochun allows Chen Kaige to return to a favourite theme,
one that he explored in Farewell my Concubine: the artist who is
confronted with temptations and distractions and must make difficult
and lonely choices. At the same time, Chen cleverly shows us some of
the dilemmas - and the costs – for China and its people as they enter
the consumer age.