Soul on a String
It took Peter Jackson three long movies to get Frodo the hobbit to Mount Doom with the ring of power in tow. from Chinese director Zhang Yang, follows a wandering ne’er-do-well on a similar quest across the arid Tibetan plateau, as he carries a sacred stone to the mountain of Kelong. There are no orcs or dragons in this movie, but as with
it’s a long, strange trip. The action of the film is set in motion by several prologue segments. In one of these, a hunter named Tabei (Kimba) kills a deer and discovers a holy stone in its mouth. He is then struck by lightning and subsequently resurrected by Tibetan monks. After a brief intrusion by the opening titles, the journey begins.
Tabei is, to put it bluntly, a jerk. As he sets out to carry the sacred stone to a region described as the “palm print of the lotus master” — a system of canyons that resembles the crisscrossing lines on a human palm, said to have been created when the Buddha smashed a demon into the earth — he acquires two traveling companions. The first is a shepherdess named Chung (Quni Ciren), who, unfortunately for her, becomes smitten with Tabei (he treats her like dirt). The second is a bedraggled boy whom Chung nicknames Pu (Yizi Danzeng). As the trio makes its way, they are pursued by brothers who want revenge on Tabei for killing their father. A mysterious figure named Gedan, accompanied by his dog General, is also on their trail.
The narrative can be hard to follow. The script was adapted from a pair of magical-realist tales by contemporary Tibetan writer Tashi Dawa and grounded in cultural traditions the filmmakers presume audiences will be familiar with. On top of that, the editing doesn’t always help viewers keep track of what’s going on. In one scene, Tabei awakes in camp at night, anticipating an enemy attack. He rises and heads into the darkness with his sword drawn. In the following scene, Tabei, Chung, and Pu are being rowed toward shore in a boat. What happened? Apparently nothing worth noting.
But what lacks in storytelling precision it makes up for in visual splendor. Portions of the story unfold in a green flood plain along a river that winds through sandy hills, with snowcapped peaks on the horizon. There are dunes evocative of White Sands and spectacularly eroded formations reminiscent of Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument near Cochiti. The lighting is consistently gorgeous, from the stark sun on the actors’ faces to the warm glow of lanterns in a roadside tavern. And there’s a sort of inner light that informs the tale as well, having to do with Tabei’s spiritual transformation and the forgiveness of multigenerational grievances. It’s the journey, not the destination, that matters, or so it’s said, but here the destination matters too. — Jeff Acker