Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles
Dir. Zhang Yimou, China, Sony Pictures Classics
By Sean Cunningham
Imagine if David Lean had awakened one day and announced, “I want to make the best damned blaxploitation flick ever.” Would that be any weirder than seeing Zhang Yimou’s Hero for the first time? The man who gave us the stately To Live, which deliberately, gradually creates a devastating portrait of life in Communist China, now offered a film about people flying around and kicking each other. Far more surprisingly, it argued that it’s okay for an emperor to brutalize his people as long as he’s working towards a positive goal (which, depending on your perspective, is either national unity or absolute power). And so the director once famously persecuted by his homeland created what would surely be Mao Zedong’s favorite kung-fu film, were the Chairman still around to see it.
At this point I should note that I adore Hero (as well as its follow-up House of Flying Daggers). While many may find the film’s message troubling--seeing as how it advocates governments completely trampling individual rights--there’s no denying the genius of the images created by Zhang and cinematographer Christopher Doyle. I didn’t buy into the movie’s themes and consequently didn’t particularly connect with its characters, but many individual moments were simply astonishing—ah, sweet Zhang Ziyi/Maggie Cheung leaf battle! Woody Allen once observed there are two kinds of comedies: ones that have a sturdy plot surrounded by jokes (say, Annie Hall) and ones that live from gag to gag (Take the Money and Run). Both can work; it’s just that the latter is far more difficult to do well, since one slip collapses the entire structure. Zhang’s Hero is the dramatic equivalent of Take the Money and Run, and it’s an extraordinary accomplishment.
Zhang signals his move back away from his martial-arts epics with the opening shot of Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles. The elderly Japanese fisherman Gou-ichi Takata (Ken Takakura) stands by a rocky shore on a dreary day— instead of bombarding us with color, Zhang offers only grey. He follows this approach for the rest of the film. While he occasionally allows himself spectacular vistas—love the twisting country road that puts Lombard Street to shame—on the whole his new film is extraordinarily subdued. Crucial sequences involve its protagonist simply watching video playback. The most aggressive physical action is a hug. Zhang even abandons his Who’s Who in Hong Kong Cinema casting approach to bring us a supporting cast of primarily nonprofessional actors.
The plot of Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles is appropriately minimal. Gou-ichi Takata is an emotionally repressed man long estranged from his son. When he receives a call from his daughter-in-law that his son is dying of cancer, Takata catches the bullet train to Tokyo, only to be humiliated at the hospital when he refuses to see him. The journey isn’t entirely in vain though, as his daughter-in-law gives him a copy of a video his son made. Watching it, he discovers his boy is a researcher obsessed with Chinese folk art who had planned to return to China to record a performance of the opera song “Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles” by the revered actor Li Jiamin. Despite not speaking a word of Mandarin or, by his own account, being good with people, Takata sets off for China to make the recording himself.
Once there he encounters a huge number of obstacles: Li is serving three years in jail for a drunken rampage, the Chinese aren’t thrilled that a foreigner wants to film in their prisons (shocker!), and his guide/ translator, while endlessly enthusiastic, doesn’t seem to speak Japanese. All this could easily descend into “My Big Fat Chinese Road Trip” hokum—there haven’t been so many adorable villagers in a film since the Ewoks— but is redeemed by Zou Jingzhi’s screenplay (based on a story by Zou, Wang Bin, and Zhang himself), which continually and oh-so-gently subverts our expectations. A quest to reunite the singer with his long ignored bastard child (thoughts of his son render the incarcerated artist too miserable to croon—Japan doesn’t have a monopoly on regretful parents) sure enough succeeds, but Takata decides not to bring the pair together, after all. His son Ken-ichi’s response when he learns of the trek to China is both better and more disappointing than Takata could have hoped (indeed, while this movie is about a father desperately trying to win back his child, the two do not have a single scene together). The film’s tone flits between a charming fish-out-of-water comedy and a life-wasted tragedy, and, to its immense credit, it provides an ending that honors both of them.
The key to the entire film is Ken Takakura. He hadn’t made a film in five years before this one (this is his 204th, putting him in territory normally reserved for porn stars) and gives a performance that I suppose must be described as “Beat” Takeshi-esque, only without the chopsticks rammed into people’s eyeballs. He allows only the most fleeting glimpses of his emotions, whether engaging in one-sided phone conversations with his outgoing daughter-in-law or letting his despair bubble to the surface ever so briefly while begging bureaucrats to grant permission for his recording. The Japanese icon has superb chemistry with the Chinese novices, particularly Qiu Lin as the charmingly inept translator Lingo. Takakura’s controlled work is surprisingly wide-ranging, as he registers sentiments from grief to unexpected joy with barely a change of expression.
Perhaps the highpoint of the movie comes when an interpreter relays stories she heard about Takata’s son’s time in China. Instead of gushing about how wonderful he found it, she reveals that Ken-ichi struggled with the language and was often alone, unable to connect with the people around him. Realizing this isn’t the sort of reminiscence likely to warm a father’s heart, she apologizes. Takata, however, calmly thanks her for the insight into his boy and asks her to continue, happy to gain any knowledge of his life, no matter how painful it is. With Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, Zhang proves he still has his gift for the quiet moments. Should he ever figure out how to wed this to Hero's spectacle, world watch out.