At the end of Zhang Yang’s Shower, there’s a lengthy fantasy sequence taking place in a desert in which a young girl is about to enjoy the first and last bath of her life as a right of passage before she is married off. Intended to emphasise the importance of water, the need of which acts as the great leveller for all living things, the brief movement away from the struggles of two brothers and their soon to be torn down bathhouse acted as a kind of lament for a perceived decline in values and priorities in a period of intense economic development. Jumping on a few films and many years later, Zhang Yang’s desert odyssey Soul on a String (皮绳上的魂 , Pisheng Shang de Hun) again takes place in an arid land where values and humanity are in peril. Adapted from two novels by Tibetan-Chinese novelist Tashi Dawa (Tibet, The Soul Tied on a String, and On the way to Lhasa), Zhang’s Tibetan western marries the classic wandering stranger narrative with a Buddhism infused magical realism.
Ruthless loner Tabei (Kimba) kills a deer only to find a mysterious amulet in its mouth recently acquired from a little girl who fell off a cliff. Experiencing his first bout of divine retribution, Tabei is struck by lighting only to be mysteriously revived by a cryptic Buddhist priest who tells him it’s his job to take the amulet to the holy land where he will also be cleansed of his considerable sins. Taking his rebirth seriously Tabei takes off even though the priest’s only hints about the location of the holy land are that the distance is under his feet and that the road is on his back.
Meanwhile, hot headed youngster Guori (Zerong Dages) is on Tabei’s trail hoping to kill him in answer to a blood feud. Tabei has committed many sins of his own but the murder of Guori’s father in a pointless gambling dispute is not one of them. Tashi died at the hands of the father Tabei never knew but as custom dictates, sons may take vengeance from sons to satisfy their honour. Trudging on through his quest, Tabei will have to face the legacy of his past even if he doesn’t really want to. Acquiring a persistent follower in Chun (Quni Ciren), a young woman with whom he spent a night on the road, and later a mysterious child with strange powers, Pu (Yizi Danzeng), Tabei pursues his spiritual quest finding his soul becoming lighter all along the way.
The futility of a blood feud, perhaps more a feature of the spaghetti western than the classic Hollywood model, lies at the heart of the spiritual drama as the spectre of vengeance for a father’s crime has overshadowed Tabei’s entire life. Guori, young, tough, and angry is determined to avenge the father who left him in such a stupid and pointless way but only increases the depth of the debt. When we first meet him he thinks he’s met his target only for the man to explain to him that many men have the name Tabei and he’s looking for someone else. Guori doesn’t believe him and kills the man anyway. If this man had a son, there is now a blood debt on Guori’s head to equal that of his quarry.
Guori’s persistent failures cause nothing but consternation to his ambivalent mother who worries for her son but also wants to see him prove himself a man and avenge her husband’s death as honour dictates. Older brother Kodi (Lei Chen) is less committed to the idea of vengeance but eventually takes on its burden. Kodi, like Tabei, sacrifices much out of the necessity of achieving this pointless goal, abandoning a woman he loved and a happy future as the father of a family. Tabei offers this same excuse to Chun in explaining his reluctance to father a child – the blood curse will simply pass to him should he be forced to kill Kodi or Guori in defending himself. The cycle never ends, only perpetuating itself through successive acts of violence.
Yet as Tabei gets closer to the promised land, his soul begins to clear. No longer so gruff and unapproachable he allows Chun to travel with him, becoming a kind of father figure to a makeshift family completed by the strange little boy, Pu. Shot against the beautiful yet unforgiving Tibetan landscapes, Soul on a String is a tale of redemption, violence, love, and legacy shot through with ancient mysticism and obscure spiritual questioning yet for all of its inherent inscrutability Zhang’s return to the desert proves infinitely fascinating despite its necessarily epic dimensions.
Soul on a String was screened at the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival.
Original trailer (English subtitles)