What do two people — once man and wife — do when they meet for the first time in over half a century? Answer: They sit down to eat. Or at least, that’s the case in this carefully polished jewel of a film, “Apart Together” (“Saikai no Shokutaku” in Japan), which won the Silver Bear at the 2010 Berlin Film Festival. Here, eating together is an occasion to air emotions, savor conversations and steal looks at the face of a loved one. The mere act of pouring tea is charged with meaning, even eroticism, and the handling of chopsticks may signal a brief, private retreat down memory lane.
As red-carpet fare goes, this one is far from anything remotely glamorous; the centerpiece is Lisa Lu, who has worked with Bernardo Bertolucci, Ang Lee and a dozen others over her stellar, 50-plus-year career. Lu is now 83, and her role in “Apart Together” is that of a woman embroiled in a delicate menage a trois that mostly unfurls over a wooden dinner table in a rickety old house, tucked away in downtown Shanghai.
“Apart Together” is directed by Quan’an Wang, whose last big-ish film was “Tuya’s Marriage” (which won the Golden Bear in Berlin in 2007) and also featured a woman torn between love and obligation as three men vie for her attention. Then, too, the dinner table played a crucial, pivotal function: It was the place where everyone gathered for physical sustenance and the venting of emotional turmoil, before getting up and returning to work.
Both stories touch on love in the conventional Hollywood sense of the word, but it would be a grave disservice to apply the love-story terminology as we know it. These people simply have too much to do, too many feelings that are never described and too little time to indulge in them.
An American friend of mine once asked with genuine bafflement why “the Asians are so into meals.” Well, as depicted in Wang’s films, mealtimes are almost always the sole occasion when people can actually sit down and hold a conversation. The rest of everyone’s waking hours are filled with working, toiling, studying. Duh.
And that had been the case with Lu’s character, Qiao Yu’e. In 1949, she was a young wife, pregnant with her first child and worried sick over the fate of her husband, Lui Yangsheng (Ling Feng), who had been fighting in the army. When Lui and thousands of other soldiers fled to Taiwan, Qiao was left with a baby and nowhere to turn. The Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and ’70s obliterated Lui’s hopes for a safe return to the mainland and Qiao more or less gave him up for dead. In the meantime, she struggled to survive and married Lu Shanmin (Xu Caigen), a former officer in the Chinese Communist Party, but a real nice guy. They raised a family, and settled into their little community in Shanghai. Time went by, and one day when Qiao had become the matriarch of a family of nine, Lui sent a letter to tell her he was coming over.
Wang’s gaze on the threesome is never intrusive or irreverent, underscoring the politeness with which these people treat each other. Qiao and Lu treat their guest with a gentle, genuine concern — no one here is interested in anything so gauche as laying bare their soul or apportioning blame. They share jokes over numerous cups of tea, stand together in the tiny kitchen to make soup and generate an enviable, quiet harmony that speak more eloquently than a heap of explanations.
But a certain, subtle flame of passion burns beneath the tranquil exterior, traced by Wang with a camera that’s staunchly focused and immobile. It’s tempting to think this static camera is a tribute to Yasujiro Ozu (whose characters were also defined by a profound politeness) and a generation of people whose desire for inner grace and social harmony exceeded personal concerns for happiness.