Apart Together -- Film Review

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BERLIN -- Wang Quan'an's fifth film "Apart Together" is another variation of his recurrent set-up of one woman flirting with two husbands (or boyfriends), torn between obligation and love (or attraction). Small in scope but tightly structured, gracefully acted and directed, it opens up deep historical wounds and generational traumas created by China's civil war, but does not press on them, exploring instead more universal human dilemmas lightened by scrumptious culinary episodes.

Generally engaging but moving at an even-keeled, slightly flat pace, it probably cannot repeat the international market buzz of Wang's Golden Bear winner "Tuya's Marriage," but should still get respectable fest-play and niche release.

Set in the late '80s, when Taiwan first organized tours for retired Nationalist (KMT) army soldiers to visit their families in mainland China, it follows old veteran Liu Yangsheng (Ling Feng)'s return to Shanghai to find his wife Yu-e (Lisu Lu) whom he lost at the pier during the chaotic retreat to Taiwan in 1949. The Chinese title "Tuan Yuan," which means 'happy reunion,' is meant ironically, as his visit causes discord among Yu-e's adult children and turns into an awkward threesome with her current husband Lu Shanming (Xu Caigen), also an ex-soldier, but on the Communist side.

Lu appears exceedingly courteous and accommodating, agreeing to let Yu-e follow Liu back to Taiwan, despite the children's disapproval or demand for financial compensation. However, things do not work out as planned. In a droll scene, Lu and Yu-e, who are common-law partners, have to get married and pose for their virgin wedding photo before they could get a divorce. Then, Lu has a stroke, giving Yu-e second thoughts.

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Liu's story could speak for a million other Taiwan war veterans but Wang tactfully does not push his complex relationship with Lu as a political allegory of PRC-Taiwan division. If Wang had played up the two men's rivalries especially their emotional blackmail in the mirrored scenes, when Lu reveals his bitterness after getting drunk at dinner, while Lu brings up his share of lifetime miseries at another meal, the film would have more dramatic intensity and the characters more human depth.

Even though major plot developments are all timed around meals, "Apart Together" is a subversion of epicurean films celebrating food's healing power. Despite the delicious feasts on display, nobody touches the dishes. The dinner table becomes the film's most powerful battleground and symbol for family politics.

Wang's regular D.O.P. Lutz Reitermeier captures Shanghai in a state of flux that reflects Liu's estranged status (reinforced also by his use of Mandarin while Yu-e's family natter away in Shanghainese). His somber and meticulous compositions encapsulate the three characters' shifting intimacies and distances in portrait style close-ups against crowd-scenes in more natural medium shots.

Wang eschews a music score but pregnant moments are interspersed with songs full of personal significance and political nuance. The most lyrical of which is Yu-e humming the '30s song "Night-time Shanghai" as she and Liu sit in their own home, now converted into a hotel, and the last trailing notes are heard as the camera pans across the tiled rooftops of '30s buildings, nestled within high rises. Or when Liu sings a song expressing his home-sickness in Taiwan dialect, symbolizing his cultural displacement.

It is a rare treat to see elderly and highly distinguished actors hold the fort with calibrated performances that only come with age. However, as a result, their children are pushed to the periphery of the narrative and leave little impression -- especially Liu's sullen and resentful son and Yu-e's grand-daughter Na-na, who could have enriched the film were they more fleshed-out. Instead, the script indulges in too many neat parallels, like Liu and Lu reversing roles as cooks, or the decision of Na-na's fiance to study abroad.

Venue: Berlin International Film Festival -- opening film, competition
Sales: Celluloid Dreams
Production: Lightshades Filmproductions Ltd.

Cast: Lisa Lu, Ling Feng, Xu Caigen
Director-screenwriter-producer: Wang Quan'an
Screenwriter: Na Jin
General executive producer: Wang Jun
Producers: Wang Le, Du Daning, Wang Zhangliang, Ouwen, Ruan Yusheng
Executive producers: Ma Rui, Sun Yian
Director of photography: Lutz Reitermeier
Costume designer: Zhang Min
Music: Ma Peng
Editor: Wu Yixiang
No rating, 93 minutes
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