Martyred cross-generational Asian stoicism acts like so much cinematic Kryptonite on us, so while "Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles" may have in the end crumpled us like a paper bag, we’ll allow that others may find it a touch cloying. Riding the recent resurgence of wuxia films has apparently afforded Zhang Yimou a more generous perspective toward his homeland; not only is his latest film without the understated barbs that complicated his best early work, it positively idolizes rural village life. Even the regional government bureaucracy comes off as benign.
Part of this stems from the fact that film views China through the eyes of an outsider. Takada (Ken Takakura) is a Japanese fisherman so trapped within his own uncommunicative self that, even though he and his son Kenichi haven’t spoken for a decade, he’s at a loss to explain why. When Kenichi falls ill, but still refuses to see him, Takada becomes convinced that, in order to patch things up between them, he needs to travel to China and tape a particular actor performing the titular opera. Kenichi, a scholar of Chinese opera, missed the performance on his last trip to the area.
And so Takada heads to the Yunnan province to locate actor Li Jiamin, who turns out to be, inconveniently, in jail. Further complications ensue, leading Takada to travel even further with only local Lingo, whose enthusiasm for acting as a translator far outstrips his actual knowledge of Japanese, as his guide. There’s a sullenly cute, bellowing kid, and a group of kind but practical-minded villagers, and along the journey Takada begins through a kind of cultural osmosis to understand his son more.
Cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding, who worked with Zhang on "House of Flying Daggers," presents a ludicrously beautiful world, from the snowy northern beach Takada has retreated to in the film’s beginning to rocky countryside and brilliant skies of the rural villages. He’s equally adept at catching the tiny traces of emotion on Ken Takakura’s weathered face. Takakura, around whom Zhang supposedly shaped the film, makes poignant scenes that shouldn’t possibly be palatable â€” bonding with a child, watching a group of prisoners clumsily enact an opera. It works only because he’s so gruff and free of charm â€” even as he opens up, he doesn’t embrace his emotions as much as probe them like the space left by a missing tooth. Watching Li Jiamin, who turns out to be as prone to drama in day-to-day life as on stage, break down and blubber ridiculously, he only muses to himself "I envy Li. He doesn’t hide his feelings. It’s a blessing to be able to express one’s emotions."
We wouldn’t call "Riding Alone For Thousands of Miles" a return to the more intimate films Zhang was known for â€” as much as it’s quietly enjoyable, it’s also quietly simplistic. Still, it’s a nice respite from the lurid martial arts epics that have become the standard Chinese festival film (being a throwback to the sentimental ones that such films replaced). A respite for now, at least â€” Zhang’s "Curse of the Golden Flower" is due in theaters in December.
Opens in limited release September 1st.