Life on a String (Chen Kaige / China-Germany-United Kingdom, 1991):
(Bian zou bian Chang)

The saintís agony, the artistís quandary. The first shot is from inside a chamber-grotto, through an azure filter. The expanses of the Mongolian landscape follow, sand and rocky mountains and surging waterfalls and torch-bearing circles, the camera drinks all from the languidly ascending/descending crane. Chen Kaigeís joke is that the sightless duo at the center canít savor the splendor around them: "Master, is empty space white?" The aged, itinerant sage (Liu Zhongyuan) was given a long-necked sanxian banjo as a child and told to pluck away, once one thousand strings have snapped heíd have his vision back. (Heís presently at 995.) His apprentice (Huang Lei), decades younger but also blind, tags along into the desert, less attuned to the old manís mystic asceticism than to the sensuous stimuli of a vivacious village lass (Xi Qing). Majestic vistas and paroxysmal emotion are the ingredients of the parable, Chenís symbols at times clash as expressively as Paradjanovís. Master and apprentice talk about women, and a serpent slithers by the bonfire; the girl prays to a plus-sized Buddha figure, then runs her hand over sunflowers so that seedlings rain over Huangís beaming face. The Master ambles into a battlefield and wedges his music between the two warring clans; heís called a saint, but as the final string draws near, he addresses the night sky: "Is the world I am going to see the same world inside of me?" Then: "Is it worth it? It is not worth it... It is worth it." Itís about vision, of course, and artistry, music and silence. The girl, walking backwards toward the edge of the precipice, is last seen as a reflection in a smudged mirror; the old man finally embraces his dream woman, the cook at an open-air noodle shop who sings him a few stanzas about solitude and transformation. Together updates the tale, with Chen himself as the God of Death (i.e. music impresario). Cinematography by Gu Changwei. With Ma Ling, Zhang Zhengyuan, and Zhang Jinzhan.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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