Gouichi Takata is a stoic fisherman of few words. When he finds out his estranged son, Kenichi, is dying of cancer in a Tokyo hospital, however, he accepts his daughter-in-law’s invitation as the best excuse for a reunion. Unfortunately, Kenichi refuses to see his father. Sometime in the past, the two had an unspoken falling out, and Kenichi is still not ready to forgive his father. Kenichi’s wife Rei tries to broker some kind of peace, giving Mr. Takata a videotape of a documentary his son worked on. Kenichi is a professor of Oriental Studies at Tokyo University. He has a special love for traditional Chinese folk opera, and has taken many trips to the mainland to record famed performances. On his last trip, Kenichi tried and failed to record “Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles,” a snippet from the Chinese national epic The Romance of the Three Kingdoms performed by Li Jiamin, considered one of the greatest living practitioners of the art. After seeing his son’s incomplete film, Mr. Takata decides it’s now his mission to travel to China, find Li Jiamin and record the one performance his dying son was unable to capture.
Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles is the latest work by Chinese director Zhang Yimou, who now seems to split his heavy workload between action-packed international blockbusters (Hero, House of Flying Daggers and the recently released Curse of the Golden Flower) and tiny art house dramas (Raise the Red Lantern, The Road Home, Not One Less). Lacking high-flying sword battles and a monstrous costume budget, this one falls firmly in the latter category.
Longtime actor Ken Takakura (who’s been working steadily since 1956) stars as our hangdog hero. Mr. Takata seems to bear the weight of the world not so much on his shoulders as on his flinty jowls. Though he remains stone-faced and silent throughout most of the film, he admits in voice-over his shortcomings. He’s not much of a people person, and he’s spent most of his life keeping feelings bottled up. In some ways, Takata’s quest seems out of character. In others, it seems like the most logical reaction to his son’s situation. Unable to demonstrate in words how he feels about his son, Takata opts to show it in deeds.
What seems like a simple side trip to China to videotape a song soon turns into a complicated diplomatic mission. Seems that Li Jiamin got himself sent to prison--a location Communist China is somewhat hesitant to show off to foreigners. Before long, Takata is stuck in backwoods China with a guide who speaks little Japanese and an increasingly long list of tasks to perform in order to get to Li Jiamin (played, of course, by Li Jiamin).
The film’s increasingly elusive title song relates the story of a hero who goes on a long, arduous journey to help out a friend. That’s not the only neat bit of symmetry on display in Yimou’s simple tale of fatherly love and devotion. As his task wears on, Takata learns a little bit more about his son--realizing, of course, that the two of them aren’t so different. Jiamin, it eventually turns out, has his own father issues, and Takata is soon escorting the singer’s young son to a tearful reunion.
Yimou has a unique talent. His smaller films present a side of China that is rarely seen. He doesn’t concentrate on the lush, beautiful, postcard-friendly landscapes. Instead, he takes us to humble villages and dusty rural vistas that more closely reflect the emotions he’s dealing with. It’s a less “touristy,” yet much more revealing look at the nation. Here, a shot of a modest village feast, mismatched tables stretching down the cramped main street, feels like the most exuberant celebration on the planet. Though covered in Asian reserve, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles is bursting at the seams with feeling--ample proof that the journey is often much more important than the destination.
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