A slow-simmering, Western-style action drama of blood feud, misfired machismo, and spiritual quest spread across Tibet’s rolling steppes and scorching deserts, “Soul on a String” follows the travails of a hunter led by fate to deliver a sacred stone to a mythic mountain despite motley foes at his heels. Chinese director Zhang Yang (“Shower,” “Sunflower”) eschews the thrill of propulsive duels for a discursive allegorical approach, serving up picturesque visuals, highland-dry humor, and karmic plot twists. While the nearly two-and-a-half-hour running time is sure to hamper theatrical release prospects, Zhang’s quirky blend of genre and art-house elements should ensure considerable fest play.
The director’s second film set in Tibet after his minimalist docudrama “Paths of the Soul” is steeped in fairy-tale color. Its prologue depicts a forest encounter between a young urchin, a deer hunter, and a young girl who falls from a cliff clutching a glowing stone. Like the metafictions of Italo Calvino and Jorges Luis Borges, the meaning of the characters’ crossed destinies will be revealed in due course, but their connections remain concealed for so long, the multi-pronged narratives fell obscure and unfocused at first.
The story proper begins with hot-headed wastrel Guori (Zerong Dages) challenging a man called Tabei to a duel to avenge his father’s death. “Many people are named Tabei,” protests his hapless target, and sure enough, Guori’s thirst for revenge doesn’t stop with the first Tabei he meets. Both his mother and older brother Kodi (Lei Chen) fear that he’s making so many new enemies that their future generations will have to pay dearly for it.
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On a parallel quest is Tabei (Kimba), former hunter, ex-con and fugitive. He’s revived by a lama (Mima) after being hit by a thunderbolt and told to bring a holy stone to Palm Print Mountain as penance to cleanse his many sins, attracting an odd bunch of followers en route: Chung (Quni Ciren), who decides he’s the love of her life after a one-night stand; Pu (Yizi Danzeng), a mute scalawag with psychic powers; Gedan (Siano Dudiom Zahi), a mysterious stalker; Zandui (Solange Nima), a wanderer with a wondrously daffy dog.
Set on vast, vacant landscapes which make past and present indiscernible, the stylized film suggests Westerns in which characters struggle as much against the elements as they do other humans. Even when the men brandish broadswords, their poise and unpolished moves resemble standoffs in gunfights rather than typical Chinese martial arts duels. And yet Zhang offers a twist on generic ideas of vengeance by imbuing every fight with a spiritual dimension. The film’s abstract tone slowly gives way to a moving sense of futile longing and tragedy as it explores Tabei’s lifelong burden of having to pay for the murder committed by a father he’s never met and how that colors his attitude toward love, or Chung’s desire to bear his child.
The title refers to the leather string that holds the stone, which Tabei wears around his neck, as well as Chung’s habit of counting the days of her romance by tying knots on a leather cord, symbolizing their pilgrimage to free themselves from physical and spiritual bondage. All the protagonists need to let go of their attachments, which according to Buddhist teaching is the root of all suffering. Without straining for heavy mysticism, the epiphany in the denouement skillfully elides time while rendering cause and effect irrelevant.
The performances are uneven, dominated by Kimba and Quni Ciren’s passionately willful personalities. Other roles, except the delightfully rascally Yixi Danzeng, tend to be one-dimensional. Gender relations seem to hail from the Dark Ages when men thoughtlessly sowed their wild oats while women, useful only for their cooking and sexual services, stoically raise kids alone.
The standout of the aesthetically pleasing production is Guo Daming’s widescreen cinematography, which captures Tibet’s stunningly varied terrain of lakes, deserts and mountains with sweeping aerial shots, in dramatic tones of fiery reds and brooding umber. Zhang Jian score infuses the electric rock score with Tibet folk melodies.