Directed by Zhang Yimou. Ken Takakura, Shinobu Terajima, Kiichi Nakai, Jiamin Li, Lin Qiu, Jiang Wen, Zhenbo Yang. Sony Picture Classics (US–2006).
Decent Films Ratings
|?Kids & Up*|
Content advisory: References to drunkenness, violence, and a child’s illegitimate status; a semi-explicit shot of a young child defacating. Subtitles.
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From a National Catholic Register review
By Steven D. Greydanus
Zhang Yimou is increasingly two different directors.
His most recent film, the disastrously misconceived The Curse of the Golden Flower, is the latest in his series of opulent art-house wuxia epics that began with the stunning Hero and continued with the seriously flawed House of Flying Daggers.
Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles represents the other Zhang Yimou, the director of bitterswewet, intimate character pieces, films like Not One Less and The Road Home. (A third Zhang, director of provocative melodramas like Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern, hasn’t been seen in awhile.)
Although a road movie of sorts, the film’s daunting title doesn’t refer to the onscreen journey, at least not in a primary sense. Instead, the film is named after a song from a Chinese folk “mask opera” that holds a particular significance for the protagonist, Gou-ichi Takata (Ken Takakura), an emotionally distant Japanese fisherman, and his alienated adult son Ken-ichi.
When the younger Takata is diagnosed with terminal cancer, his wife Rie (Shinobu Terajima), hoping to make peace between father and son, summons her father-in-law to Ken-ichi’s Tokyo hospital; but Ken-ichi refuses to see his father.
From a videotape made by his son, Gou-ichi learns of Ken-ichi’s fascination with Chinese mask operas and of his friendship with a well-known performer, Li Jiamin (real-life performer Li Jiamin playing a fictionalized version of himself). Watching the tape, an idea forms in Gou-ichi’s mind: He will travel to China to film Li performing “Riding Alone For Thousands of Miles,” ostensibly as a peace offering for his son.
This is potentially slight and sentimental stuff, but the film is wise enough to know that filming Jiamin isn’t really going to be the key to Gou-ichi’s troubled relationship with his son. Instead the story spins off in other directions, with bureaucratic obstacles, cultural and language barriers, and the troubled personal life of his would-be subject Li Jiamin.
Eventually Gou-ichi’s journey takes him to an isolated rural village in the mountains of Yunnan province, where he has an unexpectedly personal encounter with a young boy growing up without a father. The landscapes are stunning, and to Gou-Ichi as uncharted as the emotional territory he is exploring for the first time.
The themes are timeless and humane, and if the film isn’t always entirely persuasive, it earns enough viewer goodwill to make up the difference. Funny, visually sumptuous, and bittersweet, Riding Alone movingly suggests that it’s better not to.