Life On A String Review

An old man lives up on the mountains in the remoteness of inner Mongolia. Completely blind, he has been told by his master that when the 1000th string on his banjo is broken his sight will be restored. Sixty years later he has broken 995 strings and knows that the moment of his enlightenment is at hand.

The Master is a holy man and the banjo is his sole purpose for being. He disregards life, possessions, love and people. The outside world is cruel and full of lies, he believes, and there is nothing to be gained from other people and especially not women. The old man is regarded as a saint by the people in the neighbouring towns and villages, but he is old and failing in health and may not live to see the world around him as the stresses of keeping the warring villages at peace cost him greatly. He tries to guide a young pupil, Shidou, who is also blind. Shidou is convinced however that the Master is fooling himself. He is in love with Lanxiu, a young girl from the village, and their relationship threatens to come between the Master and his disciple.

This is a very unusual film. Even more so than Chen Kaige’s other films, Life On A String makes little concession for a western audience, with loads of symbolism and little in the way of plot or character development. Scenes often seem unrelated, confusing and incomprehensible and the film can be very off-putting on a first viewing. I have seen this film a number of times over the years however and I find it more and more rewarding with every viewing. It doesn’t get any easier to understand and it doesn’t get any easier to figure what perspective the director takes on the story – does he regard the old man as a saint or is he a lunatic who is wasting his life over a hopeless superstition? – but it has many moments of pure magic and a truly beautiful and moving finale.

With hindsight and knowledge of Chen Kaige’s subsequent films, familiar themes can be seen in the film. The rebellion of youth, turning against one’s father or master – abandonment of the spiritual and cultural for the material needs of the individual and the supposed betterment of society through political change. This conflict and striving for a balance is apparent in many of the director’s subsequent films although it is somewhat more obliquely treated here.

Set against the stunning locations of inner Mongolia, the film really does reach a spiritual level far beyond the apparent simplicity of the story. The Master’s remarkable weather-worn face, his wiry body, bony hands and haunting voice are unforgettable, the actor fully conveying the charisma, mysticism and stoicism of a holy man. There really isn’t another film like this.

Apart from a few reel-change marks, there are not too many marks on the print or artefacts of any kind, but that would be the best you could say about the image. It is non-anamorphic, letterboxed at 1.85:1 and colours are dull and fairly flat. The picture looks video sourced. When paused there is VHS-like cross-colouration, but this is not particularly evident when the film is playing. This is a beautiful looking film but the incredible landscapes and marvellous cinematography don’t look as good as they should do. Black tones aren’t good - they are murky and flat with an overlying rather greenish-grey tone that makes the print look dirty and hazy. Subtitles are fixed, but seem to be machine generated and not burnt into the print. I couldn’t be sure of this thought as I was unable to remove them on my player.

The soundtrack lacks any real dynamic range and contains a fair bit of background noise. The songs played by the old man on the banjo are not naturalistic sounding – nor are they meant to be. They are clearly studio productions with heavy reverb on the voice and with a full string accompaniment. The songs are very important in the film and they come across well enough with good stereo separation, however they do suffer from the same limitations as the rest of the soundtrack, with too much background noise.

There are no extra features on the DVD.

Life On A String is not a film for everyone. It is probably the least accessible of Chen Kaige’s films, but at the same time it is one of the most rewarding and is certainly worth persevering with. You shouldn’t need to watch it 1000 times to achieve enlightenment.

A comprehensive look at Chen Kaige's work on DVD can be read here.

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