Life on a String | Chicago Reader

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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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