Soul on a String follows vagrant renegade Tabei (Kimba) on a redemptive pilgrimage to Palm Print Mountain, on a sacred quest to restore a religious relic to its rightful place and atone for the sins of his fathers in the process — along with a fair few of his own as well. He is called to action following a fatal lightening strike and a fateful resurrection at the hands of a sympathetic monk. Although short on friends he is long on followers, none of whom are particularly welcome in his company: the fellowship of the stone, as it were, includes Chung (Quni Ciren), a woman looking to escape her solitary life; Gedan (Siano Dudiom Zahi), a man whose motives remain a mystery; and Pu (Yizi Danzeng), a diminutive mute who bears a striking resemblance to Kubo and the Two Strings.
Yang weaves an expansive and elaborate yarn, however, and in a parallel narrative a pair of vengeful brothers seek revenge on the man who killed their father: none other than Tabei himself. Of the two, Guori (Zerong Dages) is the least forgiving, and cuts a swathe through the vicinity dispatching any man unfortunate enough to share his nemesis’ name. Kodi (Lei Chen), on the other hand, fears for the future of his own family should karma inevitably come calling, and seeks to curb his brother’s blood-lust before it’s too late while still doing what he can to avenge his father’s death. Another figure, Zandui (Solange Nima), bears witness from afar, his faithful dog at his side, providing the film’s narration as he watches the action unfold.
At nearly two-and-a-half hours in length, Soul on a String is an epic undertaking in almost every sense, breathtaking in its sweep and beauty but dizzying in its size and scope. It’s much like Tibet itself in this respect, with its sprawling steppe and endless desert, and Guo Daming fills his screen with as much of this immense landscape as he possibly can. It’s to Yang’s considerable credit that his characters aren’t lost in the expanse, though the effect is so immersive and at times disorientating that his audience might not fare so well. This seems to be intentional, however; unsure of one’s location not just in space but also in time, it becomes apparent that such concepts as cause and effect no longer apply. This may be a cyclical, sprawling story but its rhythms are never repetitive or interminable. Submit, and the Buddhist sensibilities at its heart begin to reveal themselves.
Not that the film’s soul is left to dangle on a simple, threadbare string, with delightful characters and a disarming sense of humour lending the film a far more informal air than its subject matter and thematic overtones might imply. Yang’s mastery of tone allows him to segue seamlessly from moments of heartfelt pathos and catharsis, particularly between the two brothers in their spiritual opposition, to the broadest slapstick and most flippant pratfalls at just about every character’s expense. He uses the same tricks of misdirection and revelation to further the main plot too, at one point skilfully introducing an apparently random pair of characters with a hilarious reversal involving Zandui, only to later reveal their narrative importance to genuinely stunning effect.
A thoughtful and philosophical adventure feature with a surprising sardonic streak, Soul on a String achieves an impressive balance between Eastern teachings and Western tropes – a veritable middle way, the same nirvana after which Yang’s characters each aspire.