(1990)4Derek ArmstrongA feature-length minstrel's ballad on the determination of hope, Chen Kaige's Life on a String is a transporting cinematic journey through a fantastical Chinese landscape, one as likely to exist in the main character's mind as in any reality. The director wears his allegorical intentions on his sleeve from the opening moments, when a blind child, at his mentor's death bed, receives the prophecy that his sight will return when he breaks his 1,000th banjo string. Sixty years hence, the man has aged into a beloved traveling musician, a character who might be described as Christ-like if this were a Western film. But Chen has no simple, one-dimensional view of this archetypal blind saint. Buried beneath his ability to spread good are an array of human envies, including a burning desire to reverse the very condition that seems to have delivered him such enlightenment. The film surges with emotion during Liu Zhongyuan's musical numbers, which range from the playfulness of American folk music to the sweeping urgency of opera. Liu conveys as much of his character's inner conflicts with his expressive singing voice as with his subtle characterization. The viewer only wishes the man could see the world Chen has imagined for him, with its expansive deserts, its bustling marketplaces, and its areas of quiet refuge, like the way station by the waterfall, a recurring shelter in his travels. The film's setting is purposefully removed from place and time to underscore the greater themes. The rebellions and romantic struggles of his young apprentice, also blind, are less interesting, if only because they steal screen time from Liu's magnetic performance. But the greatest kudos belong to Chen, confident enough in his earnest vision to shoot a battle sequence from a mile's distance -- its miniscule combatants removed both physically and metaphorically, but not immune to the contagious hope of the blind man's song.