Life on a String | Chicago Reader

Life on a String

Visually impressive and intellectually provocative, though at times emotionally uninvolving, Chen Kaige's tale about two blind musicians in northwest China, master (Liu Zhongyuan) and apprentice (Huang Lei), is in part a reflection on the power of music and the libido, individually and in competition with each other; the relation of the two musicians to a feud between two clans and the younger musician's affair with a village woman (Xu Qing) are also important elements in the plot. Somewhat self-conscious as spectacle and multifaceted parable, the film certainly offers a lot of food for thought, though the allegorical meanings are at times difficult to read. Outside the work of Douglas Sirk, blindness as a spiritual metaphor probably hasn't been explored as exhaustively as here, and the metaphoric use of the banjolike sanxian and a kite flown by the master musician are equally suggestive. Adapted by Chen from a short story by Shi Tieshing (1991).

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