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A blind man's master told him that after he has broken 1000 strings on his Banjo, he can open the Banjo to get a script for his eyes. After 60 years he broke the 1000th string... Written by
Zheng Wang <email@example.com>
When one thinks of the term "enlightenment," as least with regards to cinematic portrayals, the usual images that pop up are robed monks chanting Buddhist sutras or quoting mind-imploding Zen insights. But as any good Buddhist can tell you, the roads to enlightenment are infinite. This particular old master's path to enlightenment involves the snapping of one thousand banjo strings. When the last string is broken, the old man will at last see the truth and be ready to die.
"Life on the String" is one of the most enjoyable and bittersweet Chinese costume epics I've ever experienced. But to label this somewhat obscure gem as a "costume epic" is a bit of an injustice, given its highly unusual story.
A blind old master of the pipa (Chinese banjo) and his blind apprentice wander through the wastes of Western China (Xinjiang), in search of enlightenment and inspiration. Upon settling in an abandoned hovel, the old master eagerly anticipates enlightenment and the sweet release of death, as he is on his 995th string.
This film, directed by the acclaimed director of "Farewell, My Concubine," is perhaps one of the most magnificently shot films I've ever encountered. But the most amazing aspect of this film is the music. You KNOW the old master is indeed a master when he plays his banjo. His melancholy, dreamy melodies give this film a genuine dream-like quality. The English subtitles, which are competently written, can only hint at the sublime Chinese poetry of his lyrics. The old man's music can work magic...a type of magic that the violent world that surrounds him sorely needs.
Despite "Life on a String"'s deliberate pace, you will be caught up in the story and its eccentric cast of characters. It's hard not to get lost in the seemingly endless horizons of the Chinese deserts and the hypnotic singing of the old master which swells with a lush symphonic accompaniment when he really needs to exert his magic. I also found myself feeling the old man's mounting excitement at his approaching death/enlightenment, as well as his temptation to sink into despair at this imperfect world's follies.
I highly recommend "Life on the String" for when you're in a contemplative, or perhaps "poetic", mood. For a film which deals with the theme of death, it is a very positive and uplifting work, forgoing the usual gloom and doom aura that often surrounds death. It is a film that cries out for the stillness of the soul so that one may hear a truth that can only be expressed in song.
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