J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, July 07, 2017

NYAFF ’17: Soul on a String

The talk of karma and resurrection might have been unfamiliar to an Irish Catholic like John Ford, but he could relate to the mountains and deserts of Tibet. Indeed, this Buddhist spiritual “western” often looks like it could be transplanted into Monument Valley without anyone losing a step. Of course, the subplot involving two grown sons out to avenge their father would be even more in his wheelhouse. The surprisingly compatible marriage of Western genre elements and Eastern mysticism truly distinguishes Zhang Yang’s Soul on a String (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 New York Asian Film Festival.

Taibei is a stone-killer, but you could also call him the man who killed the deer. In this case, it is quite the fateful deer, because there is a sacred holy stone lodged in its mouth. However, before Taibei can fully process this discovery, he is felled by a bolt of lightning. Coincidentally, he is not the only Taibei who will be killed today. In his thirst for vengeance, impulsive Guo Ri kills the wrong Taibei, which earns his family a whole new batch of enemies, compounding their woes exponentially.

Ironically, it is Taibei the killer whom the lama will pull back from the Bardo. He has a mission for the drifter that might just save his soul. He will deliver the sacred stone to the Holy valley known as “The Buddha’s Palm.” Taibei will accept his mission, but he is not exactly reformed yet. In fact, he might just need a bit of ruthlessness, because he will pursued by vengeance-seekers (including but not limited to Guo Ri) as well as a gang of cutthroats out to steal the priceless gemstone he carries around his neck. However, he will have some help (whether he wants it or not) from Chung, a smitten herder, and Pu, a mute little boy who appears to have some degree of second sight.

Visually, Soul might be the most arresting film since maybe Fantasia or Citizen Kane. The Tibetan vistas are genuinely breathtaking, but Zhang often uses them in ways that are pure Sergio Leone. It is like a masterclass in widescreen composition. As an added bonus, the narrative is also quite engrossing. After a strange prologue that only makes sense after the very final scenes, Zhang settles into some old school spaghetti western business. However, his narrative steadily deepens, as the characters’ karmic destinies are revealed. Frankly, it builds to some pretty amazing revelations.

As Taibei, Kimba slow-burns like a champion hardboiled noir anti-hero. He is all kinds of steely and bad, but it is Quni Ciren who truly lights up the screen as the vulnerably needy but admirably resilient Chung. Yixi Danzeng is an utter natural as the quiet but tough Pu. Siano Dudiom Zahi is also appropriately sly and morally ambiguous as Gedan, the mystery man shadowing Taibei and company. It is almost a cliché to say, but in this case, it is true Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism are also stars of Soul, up-staging many of the nonprofessional human cast-members, but not Gedan’s German Shepherd, General.

Soul is a heady film that addresses karma and justice on a cosmic level and also in nitty-gritty human terms. One mistake can lead to generations of woe for an entire family, but that is nothing compared to what it can do to the responsible party’s next reincarnation. Yet, it is also a very emotionally engaging film. Easily one of the year’s best films, Soul on a String screens this Sunday (7/9) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

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