Zhang Yimou made his name as a director by making both historical epics and movies about the plight of regular people in present-day China. When he turned his lens to artsy martial arts films, he was equally as masterful, creating cinematic poetry in both Hero and House of Flying Daggers. Many of his early fans feared he might never return to his trademark personal style, as it has been six years since Happy Times, his last contemporary picture. Those fans will be pleased by Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles.
Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles is a bittersweet drama about a Japanese man who has been estranged from his son for a decade. Takada (Takakura Ken) is a fisherman, and since his wife died, he has been more comfortable with the ocean than with other people. When his son falls ill, however, Takada attempts reconciliation. The young man, Ken-Ichi (Nakai Kiichi), refuses his father's affections, but his daughter-in-law Rie (Terajima Shinobu) gives him a video of the last time her husband had traveled to China. As an aficionado of Chinese folk opera, Takada's son made a small television program about a performer named Li Jiamin (who plays some semblance of himself), and that singer promises he will perform the obscure Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles if Ken-Ichi would return in a year. The tape was made twelve months ago, the time has come.
Takada decides that if he can capture the promised performance on film for his son, then he can mend their broken relationship. He travels to China, only to find the task much harder than he would have guessed. The language barrier is a bigger obstacle than expected, and the singer has been put in jail for assault. Refusing to back down, Takada proceeds, eventually getting embroiled in Li's own family drama and meeting Yang Yang (Yang Zhenbo), the opera star's son born out of wedlock.
Yimou walks two narrative lines in Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles: that of the stranger in a strange land learning to cope, and a study of the relationships between fathers and sons.
Takada is completely out of his element in China. Not only must he rely on translators, including the remarkably unreliable and ironically named Lingo (Qiu Lin), but for a man who spends most of his life alone, it's not easy to ingratiate himself to people. How hard he works to learn the ins and outs of small-town Chinese politics speaks volumes for how much Takada wants to complete his mission. Perhaps more touching for him, however, is the kindness he is shown in return. His guides stay on longer than they should out of sympathy for his plight, and when he goes to Yang Yang's village, Takada is blown away by their sense of community. Zhang Yimou uses the rural setting to his full advantage. The town throws a banquet in Takada's honor, and the tables line an entire street. There is no greater illustration of how far Takada has come from his lonely boat than this feast that goes on as far as the eye can see. The people extend beyond the horizon.
While Takada might start his journey alone, the farther he goes, the less solitary he becomes. Each step chips away at his crusty exterior. Takakura Ken, who has starred in countless films in Japan, brings a quiet stoicism to Takada. The character doesn't rush to make grand expressions, and so each time he must, it's rough for him, like the tearful video-taped plea to a local magistrate to get permission to film Li Jiamin in prison. Traveling where his son traveled, Takada feels the gap between them closing. Even learning that his son was not a very social person tells him that the apple didn't fall far from the tree. This makes it all the more poignant when Takada meets Yang Yang and the youngster melts his heart. Being with the boy who has never known his father, he sees both the damage that he did to his own child and the promise of a better tomorrow. When the two get lost in the stony mountains near Yang Yang's home, they grow close. It's a beautifully shot sequence, the towering rocks causing Takada to realize just how small his plight is in the grand scheme of things, and he sees a chance to heal another father-son rift.
These epiphanies could have lead to a mawkish resolution, but Yimou keeps the sentimentality dialed down. So much is said by Takakura's silent expressions, there was really no need to push it harder. That makes it all the more frustrating that Yimou has tacked a voice-over onto the movie. The only practical purpose this narration serves is to connect some rather obvious dots, and its inclusion shows a lack of faith in the audience and his actors. Takakura conveys so much through his physical presence, and just by standing there and looking lost, he is far more effective than any spoken explanation will ever be. These moments mar an otherwise solid picture.
All in all, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles is a welcome return to personal dramas for Zhang Yimou. He's put down his sword and come out of the trees, settling firmly on the ground, and even though it's not a perfect landing, the resulting movie is still very good. Great scenery and great actors can tell the story all on their own, and they are what keep Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles from going too far off the map.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with JoŽlle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.