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Friday, September 22, 2017

SOUL ON A STRING -- DVD Review by Porfle

Beautifully photographed in the Himalayas, the story of Chinese director Yang Zhang's SOUL ON A STRING (2016) is often overwhelmed by the sheer sweep of its sumptuous visuals--the sometimes confusing multi-faceted plot is easy enough to lose as it is. 

But when it focuses on its three or four main characters and their metaphysical journey of enlightenment, the extremely leisurely pace and lack of a conventional storyline ultimately lead the patient viewer to a rather satisfyingly cathartic resolution.

It all starts when Tabei, a reclusive mountain man and inveterate bad boy, kills a deer and discovers a sacred stone in its mouth.  After being killed by a bolt of lightning and then revived by some local monks, Tabei is given the sacred duty of traveling to Palm Print Mountain, the sacred home of the Lotus Master, and delivering the stone to its rightful place.  In doing so, he'll  be given the opportunity to "cleanse his heart" and make amends for his former sins. 

During the long, grueling journey by foot, Tabei acquires two unwanted companions--Chung, a love-starved young woman eager to escape her current circumstances, and Pu, a mute feral boy with apparent psychic abilities.  Though surly and abusive at first, we pretty much know that Tabei will eventually find the two to be a civilizing influence as was the case in THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES when the title character began to amass a surrogate family and, through them, learn to regain his humanity.

The trouble is, Tabei is being stalked not only by thieves who covet the stone but also by two brothers out for revenge after the long-ago killing of their father by Tabei's own father.  Needless to say, the film will have much to say via these characters about pointless quests for revenge and needless violence in general. 

In the meantime, though, Tabei's run-ins with these dogged pursuers will supply the story with one of its main sources of tension as several scenes seem to be leading up to some kind of gunfight or swordplay (Tabei even makes a stop at a retired swordmaker's house a la KILL BILL).

Surprisingly, no such action ever takes place.  SOUL ON A STRING isn't that kind of adventure--it's story for story's sake, not just as a lead-up to periodic bursts of kinetic violence.
After awhile, I actually found myself hoping that such clashes would be avoided in favor of just getting on with the story, which, after a slow first half, starts to get really engaging.  Tabei's journey becomes much more than just getting from one place to another as he begins to discover the true meaning of life and the importance of things he once overlooked.  His slow-burn love story with his surrogate family also becomes quite engaging after awhile.

Yang Zhang spares no effort to make all of this as gorgeous as his incredible locations will allow, as he shoots in places that would make John Ford green with envy (invocations of Monument Valley abound).  He infuses SOUL ON A STRING with a myriad of visual and thematic references to such genres as Italian and American Westerns, samurai films, and fantasy quests (as in the LORD OF THE RINGS series). 

Bringing the Western feel into focus is the presence of a tall, mysterious man in black who looks like a gunfighter out of a Leone film but turn out to have an altogether different motive for tracking down Tabei. It's part of the film's heavily metaphysical underpinning, one which also includes the jarring juxtaposition of the ancient world with the modern in what makes it seem as though the story takes place on the very edge of some strange rift in time.

The DVD from Film Movement is in 2.35:1 widescreen with 5.1 and 2.0 sound (Tibetan with English subtitles).  As a bonus, there's a compelling short film by Oalid Mouaness, a political parable entitled "The Rifle, the Jackal, the Wolf, and the Boy."

Like a candle slowly burning and getting brighter as it reaches the end, SOUL ON A STRING begins as a pretty but flickering diversion and ends with a richly illuminative glow.  It has the breathtaking locations of a conventional epic, yet amidst that splendid backdrop is a human story that I found haunting and effective.


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