Transpose Together from its Beijing setting to Manhattan, and Chen Kaige’s sentimental and somewhat gooey story of a violin prodigy whose poor, uneducated father scrimps to advance his son’s career in the big city could be any Hollywood fable about the lures of ambition and the importance of family. But the director of ”Farewell My Concubine,” who survived a revolution that banned the ”corrupt” influences of classical composers such as Tchaikovsky and Liszt, has anything but gentle metaphors in mind for a modernized China. A cold competition for capitalist success, he lectures, threatens to destroy old values, as the son (played by untrained actor and actual violinist Tang Yun) begins to change, his country openness hardening into something more cosmopolitan and less loving.
Chen himself plays a soulless, Westernized violin teacher who trains his pupils to win at any cost, and his wife, Chen Hong, plays the boy’s brittle, sexually free neighbor. To contextualize the story’s lack of subtlety, it helps to see these casting choices as ongoing penance for the time when, as a boy, Chen denounced his own father to the Red Guard.