NYAFF 2017: Soul on a String
Whenever I hear the word “western” in a plot synopsis my radar beeps and, for better or worse, I’m always happy to see the genre and how it applies to international filmmaking. Soul on a String is sold as a slow burning western set in Tibet, evoking Buddhist ideologies and spiritualism while a blood feud between protagonists looms over their quest.
The movie starts with a peculiar conceit. Our protagonist Taibei (Kimba) dives from a tree top to kill a deer. Once he finds a stone in the dead creature's mouth, he’s struck by lightning. Shortly afterward, he’s revived by a temple of monks who absolve this gruff wanderer of his transgressions, appointing him on a journey to deliver the sacred stone to the holy Palm Print Mountain. On his travels, he is followed by a female companion (a bit of a strained and dated characterization) and a mute child who communicates through a crude stringed instrument (like a cross between a Hulusi and a Balalaika?) and seems to be endowed with psychic powers.
Analogous tethering is inescapable with a film that evokes so many thematic elements and stylistic devices; having said that Soul on a String has the atmospheric mechanics of a Tarkovsky/Jodorowsky inspired acid western, with the measured pacing you’d see from China’s mainland contingent. I couldn’t help but think about Li Lianying’s 1986 film The Horse Thief.
Soul on a String has the hot, arid sun-baked tenor of a western steeped in Buddhist iconography and its spiritual quest storyline provides a subtle sense of elevation.
This is a film lost in time, and that’s something of a compliment and a drawback to the movie. The first act is intriguing, and the ambiance unusual, seductive, but this air of mystery looms for a bit too long and while the enigmatic side of the film is its lure, this freewheeling structure might cause some to wander.
However Zhang Yang knows how to manage a moodily structured film; there’s a sense of humor to the heady material, slyly inserted at unexpected junctures, it seems like Yang’s a director who can make an undemanding epic that suits its 142-minute runtime.
For years the religious iconography and spiritual themes in Chinese cinema, more so in Hong Kong’s film industry, had taken shape in horror/action/comedies like the Mr. Vampire series, or have been the driving force in sorcery wuxia movies a la The Bride with White Hair, or the A Chinese Ghost Story trilogy. Yang’s more grounded and earthy approach is refreshing in a contextual sense and in the larger international sense Soul on a String is taking cues from a well of influence, but the film is entirely original and unusual. Yang crafts a hypnotic fable with an unemphatic modern twist; it knows what it wants to be and unlike so many contemporary films Yang’s self-satisfied demeanor serves his work well and considering how unconventional the material is it doesn’t suffer from an identity crisis.
Soul on a String is a strange, beautiful, and experiential movie that requires some patience and an open mind concerning thematic structure and treatment of time but it’s rewarding in the end.