Life on a String (Chen Kaige, 1991)
Mandarin Title: Bian zou bian chang
Chen Kaige's Life on a String opens and ends with death. It begins with the death of a blind grandmaster who tells his young disciple to break the one thousand strings of his banjo to open the box that contains a prescription that will cure his blindness. Sixty years after, the young disciple has turned into an old master (Liu Zhongyuan) yet still carries the same banjo that contains the secret prescription, with only a few strings remaining intact. Along with his also blind disciple, Shitou (Huang Lei), the old master travels to a remote village that is torn by two warring clans. The old master is considered a saint, and through his songs, the two clans are momentarily pacified. However, the young disciple is beholden by the village lass Lanxiu (Xu Qing) and further neglects his duties to his old master.
Life on a String is a beautiful, if not mysterious, fable that discusses the persistence of old age and the whims of youth. The old master persists in breaking all of the one thousand strings that the grandmaster has promised him would restore his eyesight. The young disciple is however in the more physical attractions of life. The film is both a philosophical and a coming-of-age film. While the old master struggles with his impending death and the impending result of a life's work, the young disciple is enchanted by the delights of youthful romance. The intersection of the duo's concerns erupts into conflict, depicted under the grand landscapes visualized by Chen and cinematographer Gu Changwei.
The deceit of the film that it blankets conflict with the serenity of the film's surroundings. A resulting suicide is drowned by the vastness of the valley, and Shitou's despair is heard at once with the howling wind. Drama is emphasized with nature's calmness. The old master's poignant resolution after being sung a song by a teahouse owner's wife is backdropped by a noisy and strong waterfalls. Most telling is the scene wherein the old master is pleaded to resolve an encounter between the two warring clans. The landscape shows the vast desert with hordes of men fighting. The old master sits in quiet assurance and sings a song that feels too big to come from his frail body. The result is miraculous and utterly hopeful. It must be remembered that the old master is considered a saint, and it is quite likely that the gods are singing through his music.
Chen's film is coupled with conflicts and contradictions. As explained above, dramatic and emotional turmoil is backdropped with serene scenery, the woes of old age and the innocent concerns of the youth intersect. Moreover, the film discusses hope, rejection, and finally resolution. The old master's sixty year journey to break all the strings ends, not with a miracle, as might be expected from Chen's fable-like filmmaking, but with an all too real revelation. Life is not about the result of one's handwork, but life is the handwork. As much as the old master has dedicated his life to play his banjo until the strings naturally break and finally give him the prescription for him to see, it is also about the fact that his life is the string, and the music that results from his persistence.