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.
In the end, though, it turns out that the House of Flying Daggers is something the film doesn’t actually care about that much. So much is this the case, in fact, that the last time we hear tell of them, the warriors called the Flying Daggers are about to get into this huge climactic battle with the enemy soldiers, whom we see advancing slowly into the bamboo forest where the Flying Daggers are hiding… at which point the story cuts to another plot thread, never to return.
The story is pure Hong Kong melodrama, set at the dawn of the Chinese Imperial Era in the third century BC. … Yet there’s nothing even marginally conventional about Hero’s overpowering visual splendor, its effulgent riot of color and texture, its overwhelming spectacle of scale.
The film knows that to a young girl hopelessly in love, this race is no grandly romantic gesture, but a matter of desperate necessity. She must, must catch the wagon; he must have the dumplings. Her future happiness depends upon it; all is lost if she fails.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.