In Wang Quan'an's quietly mesmerizing, masterful Apart Together, basic truths like family, marriage, and history are under siege, not just by the intrusion of a past that isn't even really past, but also by a "city of the future" that lathers in the anxieties caused by China's accelerating globalization.
The city in question is none other than Shanghai -- a megalopolis in the constant throes of profound change. Change is also what's afoot for the Qiao family, led by matriarch Qiao'e (played by the indomitable Lisa Lu), who, in the opening scene of the film, is the addressee of a shocking letter that is read aloud. In it, a former Kuomingtang soldier by the name of Liu Yangsheng (Taiwanese actor Ling Feng) makes known his desire to return to mainland China, which is where he met, fell in love with, and impregnated Qiao'e. Having been ousted by the Communist Party in 1949, Liu was forced to abandon his first love, and like thousands of his ilk, fled for the greener pastures of the Taiwan straits. Now he wants to do right by her, even if it's not entirely clear how, given that Qiao'e has a husband of her own, along with several irascible daughters and sons who are none too pleased that Liu is proposing to whisk Qiao'e away with him to live out their days in Taiwan.
Still, the Qiao family is keenly aware that there's nothing quite like Southern (China) hospitality, and so they begin the painstaking process of treating Liu like one of their own, offering luxuries both ritual (a daily feet-soaking routine that's about as awkward as it should be) and gastronomical (yay for hairy crab season!). But Liu seems insistent on carrying out his wish, and soon, the family is thrown into turmoil, with the dinner table often serving as a tableau for unspoken resentment and subtle territorial jockeying for the "possession" of Qiao'e.
In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, these scenes might've unspooled like a lianxiju, China's equivalent of the daytime soap opera, where bickering family members spray long-repressed vitriol in every direction, at slights real or perceived. If this were a Hong Sang-soo movie, be sure that any liquored-up confessions would play out disastrously in a symphony of self-loathing and sexual frustration. But Wang Quan'an understands economy of expression as well as anyone not named Hou Hsiao-Hsien or Ozu. His dinner table is a steady, static canvas, where the rules of engagement are never quite clear. The past is spoken of, but often in a haze of misdirection. Any metaphorical blows land glancingly. Proposals are modest, made in the guise of monologues -- because it's far easier to retreat into one's own mind, rather than having to actually arrive at the point (if there even is one). And moments of catharsis are communicated via classic Chinese and Taiwanese folk songs -- each note charged with a memory of purer, simpler times, proving that where peace summits and trade agreements have failed, karaoke may yet succeed.
Like so much of today's mainland Chinese cinema that is essential viewing, Apart Together is totally unwilling to offer a solution -- or even closure -- to a historical and personal crisis that continues to reverberate today throughout China and Taiwan. Wang even suggests that the crisis has taken hold of the current generation, albeit in a different form: globalization, which seems to be stunting our relationships instead of expanding them. Yet in his own way, Wang seems hopeful, not necessarily of a reunion between the two sides, but of a shared history that -- unreliable and undignified as it is -- touches upon memories that are worth more preserved than discarded. "Apart together" might not have quite the same ring to it as "separate but equal," but as far as paradoxes go, China and Taiwan relations could do a whole lot worse.
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