Gou-ichi Takata (Ken Takakura) and his adult son Ken-ichi (voice of Kiichi Nakai) have been estranged for over eight years. When he receives a plaintive call from his daughter-in-law, Rie (Shinobu Terajima), informing Takata that Ken-ichi is seriously ill, he goes to the hospital to try to patch up their relationship. His son refuses him. After the aborted visit, Rie gives Takata a video tape that the younger man made attempting to film a famous Chinese folk opera star. Gou-ichi watches the tape and sees that, possibly, he can finish Ken-Ichi’s work and make amends. He hatches a plan to journey to China’s Yunnan province, with camera and a Japanese/Chinese dictionary in hand, in “Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles.”
Director Zhang Yimou is best known in America for his mega-spectacles like “House of Flying Daggers,” “Curse of the Golden Flower” and “Hero.” But, for real film buffs, he is also known for his quiet, personal films like “Ju Dou,” “The Road Home” and “The story of Qui Ju.” “Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles” falls squarely in the latter category. Now available on DVD, the package contains only the film and a 15-minute making-of featurette.
Gou-ichi, moved by his son’s ambition to film the title opera and wanting to bridge the gap between them, is determined to complete Ken-ichi’s quest and journeys, alone, to Yunnan to videotape opera singer Li Jiamin performing the titular song of friendship. Takata’s one-man crusade, he soon finds out, will impact not just him but also Jiamin and his long-lost illegitimate son, Yang Yang (Zhenbo Yang).
While not one of Zhang Yimou’s best or more memorable works, “Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles” is a decent character study of an aging fisherman trying to make amends for the mutual separation from his son. Gou-ichi’s journey to China is met with disappointments and revelations as the stranger in a strange land is aided and abetted by kindly peasant folk, compassionate bureaucrats and a little boy who re-teaches him the meaning of love for family.
Ken Takakura, best known to western audiences as the Japanese cop in the Michael Douglas film, “Black Rain,” anchors the film with his presence and determination. The charm, though, is in the casting of non-actors in virtually all other roles. From real-life opera singer Jianin to travel agent Lin Qiu and youngster Zhenbo Yang, the cast is the genuine article in giving “Riding…” a nice verisimilitude. This move in casting real people as people isn’t an easy one to pull off but maestro Yimou handles it nicely. Techs are terrific, especially the lush lensing of the beautiful, rugged landscapes in China by frequent Yimou collaborator, Xiaoding Zhao.
The DVD, as I said, has just the featurette as the sole extra, but this makes it special enough to attract rental audiences and Zhang Yimou fans. It gives a good insight into the director’s commitment to his works, large and small. A commentary track would have been nice but this is such a little film, making that add-on is probably not fiscally feasible.
I give both film and DVD a B.Laura:
Between the epic historical pageantry and action of "House of Flying Daggers" and "Curse of the Golden Flower," writer/director Zhang Yimou explored one of his country's remotest, but most beautiful, locales, the Yunnan province of China, for one of his smaller, more personal films. "Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles" is the story of a father, who in attempting a last-minute reconciliation with his dying son, brings another little boy back to his father.
Like the character of Gou-ichi Takata (legendary Japanese actor Ken Takakura, "The Yakuza"), we never see the character of Kenichi (voice of Kiichi Nakai), only that of Rie (Shinobu Terajima), Gou-ichi's daughter-in-law. Rie tries to arrange a hospital visit but her husband rejects his father, who has travelled to Tokyo from his far away fishing village. Gou-ichi watches a video his son has produced, given to him by Rie as a way of getting to know his son, and seizes on the Chinese opera singer, Li Jiamin, whose rendition of "Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles" is the choice piece his son promises on camera to return to film. The father decides to do this for in his son's stead and makes yet another, far longer and more demanding journey to do so.
In Yunnan, Gou-ichi discovers that Li Jiamin is now in jail and his translator Jasmine does everything to dissuade him from trying to gain access. The insistent senior takes another guide, Lingo, and travels to the singer's home town where he finds another son, young Yang-Yang, separated from his father.
The story may be sentimental, but Yimou layers it by adding cultural clash to the generational ones. The DVD features a fifteen minute featurette which expounds on the Yunnan location (The Stone Forest, where a large segment of the film is set, is a striking Karst formation as found in the American West and the Carlsbad Caverns), its Japanese star, and most of all, Yimou's hugely talented ability to blend professional actors (Takakura and Terajima) with unexperienced people from the walks of life he depicts (the rest of the cast!). This largely unseen little gem deserves a look, particularly by Yimou fans and those interested in the differences between the cultures of China and Japan.
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