SOUL ON A STRING C
China (142 mi) 2016 d: Zhang Yang
Following on the heels of the Russian revisionist film Paradise (Rai) (2016), this is another example of a nation literally appropriating another country’s language, land, and culture in an attempt to alter the world’s perception of China, which is the occupying force in Tibet. Imagine the Nazi’s making a fantasy film in French about Paris during their WWII occupation, Israel making a mythical film in Arabic about the Palestinians during their armed occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, or Britain making a film in Gaelic about the Northern Irish while under British military rule in the 70’s. A visually stunning film like this, with its panoramic vistas, has a way of elevating one’s appreciation for the ravishing beauty we see onscreen, but completely leaves out any background historical context. Mao Zedong’s Communist Nationalist army took over Tibet in 1950, hailing the act as a liberation from an old, feudal system that included both British and American imperialist influence. Resentment for the Chinese grew in Tibet over the following decade with armed rebellions breaking out. In March 1959 the capital of Lhasa erupted in a full-blown revolt, where asserting Chinese nationalism, anywhere from 200,000 to a million Tibetans were killed and approximately 6000 Buddhist monasteries were ransacked and destroyed, forcing the Dalai Lama, the widely revered Tibetan spiritual leader, to flee to India, where he has lived in exile ever since. China’s assertion for its territorial claim goes back to the 13th century, when both Tibet and China were absorbed into the Mongol empire. Known as The Great Khanate, the empire contained China, Tibet, and most of East Asia, becoming known as China’s Yuan Dynasty. Throughout the Yuan, and subsequent Ming and Qing dynasties, Tibet remained a subordinate principality of China, though it retained varying degrees of independence. The Himalayan mountain range provides a mountainous wall of strategic security for China, while Tibet possesses a significant mining industry, also serving as a primary water supplier. China has invested billions into Tibet and flooded the nation with Chinese immigrants over the past decade where its resources have been included in the economic development plan for Western China known as China Western Development. Like the former satellite nations of the USSR, all answering to Moscow, the needs of Tibetans, who are devout Buddhists, residing in an economic zone described as a Tibet Autonomous Region, now answer to Beijing, ruled by the Chinese Communist Party and are under constant threat by overzealous security forces. This conflict of limitless spirituality and occupying military rule has resulted in the self-immolation of more than 140 Buddhist monks in protest of Chinese rule in Tibet since 2009, as documented by Tsering Woeser, a well-known Tibetan writer and activist, Why Are Tibetans Setting Themselves on Fire? | by Tsering Woeser ..., which includes passages from Tsering Woeser’s Tibet on Fire: Self-Immolations Against Chinese Rule, from The New York Review of Books, January 11, 2016.
That being said, one must be extremely suspect of how China appropriates Tibetan culture, as it is just another form of political exploitation. In the not too distant past, China outlawed filming in Tibet, where actress Joan Chen defied Chinese censors by shooting there in her directing debut film XIU XIU: THE SENT-DOWN GIRL (Tian yu) (1998), an overt condemnation of the Cultural Revolution and winner of seven awards at the Taiwanese Golden Horse Film Festival. While there are current Tibetan filmmakers, such as Pema Tseden’s THARLO (2015) or Sonthar Gyal’s RIVER (2015), who provide an authentic view of life in modern Tibet, the rest of the world remains cultural outsiders. Films about ethnic minorities, and in particular films about Tibet, are subject to special scrutiny in China, where anything filmed in Tibet requires approval by the Tibet Committee of the United Front Work Department which operates under the Communist Party’s Central Committee — not just the state media regulator, as is the case with most films. According to Shelly Kraicer, Toronto film critic and scholar of Chinese cinema, “At the end of the day, everybody is still using and exploiting images of Tibet.” Director Zhang Yang previously directed overly commercial works like SHOWER (1999) and SUNFLOWER (2005), but before making this film he decided to spend a few months living in Tibet in 2013, where some of his experience is captured in the documentary PATHS OF THE SOUL (2015), which follows the Werner Herzog template established in WHEEL OF TIME (2003). While Herzog and his crew travel to a Buddhist pilgrimage site in Bodgaya, India, Zhang, in a part documentary and part fiction film, follows the journey of a group of Tibetan Buddhists on a pilgrimage to Lhasa, the holy capital of Tibet, much of it reflected in continuous repetition of prostrating one’s self on the ground. Zhang’s new film, where all of the actors in the film are Tibetan and speak Tibetan, is based on a story by the prominent Tibetan writer Tashi Dawa, drawing on Tibetan folk traditions and magical realist elements as it follows the adventurous exploits of a man named Tabei (Tibetan actor Kimba) who is brought back to life by a living Buddha after being killed by lightning, offering him penance to cleanse his murderous past and a chance for rebirth. The film follows his elongated and roundabout journey, including a collection of eccentrics he encounters along the way, as he pursues a mission to bring a Dzi bead, or sacred stone, to a mythical holy land. Using a comical, over exaggerated Sergio Leone spaghetti western style, the film continues to view Tibet as a fairy tale land of fantasy and exoticism, leaving out any references to ethnic abuse or signs of a culture repressed, as thousands of Tibetans are being forced to leave their grazing land and an agrarian way of life that is centuries old, replaced by Chinese bulldozers and more widespread pollution, with fear gripping an occupied community, not to mention arbitrary arrests and brutal detentions that continue without due process under Chinese communist rule, including torture and shoot-to-kill policies in effect, many for something so commonplace as flying the banned Tibetan Snow Lion flag.
The film is the exact opposite of that grim reality, painting a picture of staggering opulence, like a reworking of Wong Kar-wai’s visually luxurious ASHES OF TIME (1994), blending Buddhism with Western motifs, set in endlessly vast desert landscapes, all captured in widescreen by cinematographer Guo Daming, featuring sweeping aerial shots, Soul on a String by ZHANG Yang - Trailer - YouTube (1:58). At two and a half hours, this overlong yet epic journey of mythological self-discovery combines two of Dawa’s best-known short stories from the 80’s, Tibet, a Soul Knotted on a Leather Thong and On the Road to Lhasa, featuring a prologue, a shoot-out, a battle-hardened, resurrected criminal on a new mission, where he prefers to be a loner, but along comes a girl named Chung (Quni Ciren), who leaves her sheep and goats behind as she’s smitten by his strange appeal after a night in the same bed, remaining by his side throughout the journey, followed by Pu (Yizi Danzeng), a dwarfish and peculiarly mischievous mute with psychic powers. Following them are two brothers, trigger happy Guori (Zerong Dages), seen in the opening shoot-out, and the more measured older brother Kodi (Lei Chen), as both vow to kill Tabei to avenge the killing of their father. However Guori has a habit of killing a rotating cast of companions named Tabei, leaving behind a trail of wrongful men named Tabei whose killings had nothing to do with the crime, which eventually start to weigh on his karmic consciousness. Also following him are Gedan (Siano Dudiom Zahi), a mysterious stalker who seems to be recording the events on paper and may be the narrator, and Zandui (Solange Nima), a lone wanderer with a goofy dog named General. Many of the secondary characters provide comic relief, growing more ridiculous over time, where all are one-dimensional characterizations, while the film, as resplendent as it may be, is little more than escapist entertainment, featuring swordfights and honor codes that play out in western lore, set against a backdrop of awesome visual splendor. It’s something of a confused curiosity where recurring characters randomly cross paths, reaching for a strain of pop mysticism, with the title referring to the leather string that Tabei wears around his neck that holds the stone, as well as Chung’s habit of counting the days of her romance by tying knots on a leather cord, where both, according to Buddhist teachings, need to free themselves of all earthly burdens and attachments. But that being said, while it’s immaculately gorgeous, there’s really no successful resolution by the end, as the journey simply ends. This may remind some of Tarsem’s THE FALL (2006), a visually extravagant film shot in twenty-five different countries over the course of four years, which is equally breathtaking to look at, but it does a better job of conjuring up images from a 5-year old’s imagination, taking a kaleidoscopic trip literally around the world, extending the limits of storytelling, and doing a better job of blending fantasy and reality, ultimately becoming a much more intimate and rewarding experience.