Riding Alone For Thousands Of Miles Review
Gou-ichi Takata (Ken Takakura) receives the telephone call that every father dreads. Called to Tokyo by his daughter-in-law, he receives word that his son, Ken-ichi, is dying. Understandably mournful over the imminent death of his son, Gou-ichi also knows that the two have not spoken in years and have, in spite of their blood relation, lived separate lives. Attempting a reconciliation, Gou-ichi makes a tentative approach via his daughter-in-law but Ken-ichi refuses him, leaving his father alone outside of the hospital, with nothing but his feelings of regret for company. The kind words of his daughter-in-law serve as nothing as he turns towards home but remaining hopeful that the two will share words before Ken-ichi's death, a videotape is slipped into Gou-ichi's hand, which he duly packs before biding farewell.
Returning home with the videotape, Gou-ichi finds the one man in his remote village who can play it and watches a television news report of his son, a documentary filmmaker, attempting to record a performance of a mask opera by Li Jiamin in the Chinese province of Yunnan. Believing that a bridge can be built between his son and himself, Gou-ichi leaves both his village and Japan for China where he hopes to complete his son's work by filming Li Jiamin performing the opera Riding Alone For Thousands Of Miles. With an interpreter who speaks little Chinese and the news that Li Jiamin is currently in prison for stabbing a man, Gou-ichi's way is made almost impossible. But a need to make it up with his son drives him to finish Ken-ichi's work with little regard to where his efforts may take him.
In time, the expression of a martial art becomes not what one has been taught but what one has discovered about oneself. After two dazzling martial arts films, Hero and House Of Flying Daggers, it is fitting that director Zhang Yimou has gone on to make Riding Alone For Thousands Of Miles, a road movie that doesn't so much discover what's out there as what lies within its central character. Riding Alone... pulls away the normally hard exterior of grown men and reveals the tears that are usually swallowed back. There is much crying, most of it in unexpected places, but laughter as well and reveals a connection with its emotional core that was missing from Hero and House Of Flying Daggers and may be all the more impressive because of it.
Like the very best road movies, Riding Alone... places its central character in unfamiliar locations, initially that of a bustling Tokyo and then that of rural China, both of which are a world away from the small Japanese village in which Gou-ichi Takata lives. In doing so, Zhang Yimou takes Gou-ichi out of his place of safety and leaves him alone, cutting him off from his surroundings in the manner that his son, Ken-ichi, has been from his family. In Tokyo, where he is refused entry to his son's hospital room, Gou-ichi looks lost and very much alone. In China, despite the comfort that he takes in the rural surroundings, no one understands his Japanese and the translator that accompanies him, Qui Lin, who writes things down in a pad to translate later, is of little use when faced with the beaurocracy of the Chinese penal system. Again, Zhang, not content with taking him far from home, places many obstacles in Gou-ichi's path in the manner of a series of trials that must be overcome in the traditional manner of a quest. Li Jiamin, for example, isn't just difficult to find but is also in prison, asking that Gou-ichi deals with the Chinese authorities. Even then, his efforts are somewhat in vain as Li Jiamin refuses to perform, sobbing in great gulps as he reveals the shame that he feels being in prison unable to see his own son, the young Yang Yang.
Writing it down, it sounds much more obvious than it is presented in the film. After all, what could be less unexpected than Gou-ichi, estranged from his own son, discovering that he must venture into rural China in search of Yang Yang. But as Zhang has structured his film, it feels natural and certainly in the manner in which Gou-ichi approaches the task, it's done without fuss or fanfare. In spite of the drama of the first half of the film, it's this second half that works best, finding a relaxed tone that's well-suited to the pace of rural life. In this, there are moments that are surprisingly touching, such as when a banquet is prepared in Gou-ichi's honour by those living in the village in the Yunnan province where Yang Yang is being raised. Or, even better, when Gou-ichi getting a laugh out of the bad-tempered Yang Yang by taking photographs of him as he tries to relieve himself whilst hidden between rocks in mountains.
Riding Alone... doesn't end as you might expect. It suggests a happy ending but it's difficult to see how any character has actually achieved what they set out to do. Perhaps this was for the best, making it an unpredictable story where a lesser director might have tended towards the obvious. The tears that accompany its final moments, as well as those that are swallowed back, reveal the emotions felt by men who are more used to hiding them. And it's there that Riding Alone... becomes a great film. The parallel that is drawn between Gou-ichi and Li Jiamin may be an obvious one but it is how one's stoicism is mirrored by the other's openness that is more surprising. The moment that Li Jiamin cannot hold back his tears is a fitting ending. You may well be joining him.
Riding Alone For Thousands Of Miles looks fine, as much as one might expect it to. Never as visually grandstanding as Hero, there are still some beautifully framed moments in the film and the DVD does these justice, capturing the stark mountains well and giving them a presence that they demand to have. However, at other times, it is quite an anonymous-looking film, moreso in the first half hour than later on, but the actual transfer is very decent, perhaps never drawing attention to itself but never a disappointment either. The print that has been used as a source is in good condition and although there is a slight wobble, which is most obvious when set against the subtitles, it never becomes distracting.
The DD5.1 audio track is a good one but also a restrained one, rarely using the rear channels for anything more than ambient effects but given the nature of the film, one never misses them. The dialogue is clear and there's very little noise in the many silences that make up the second half of the film but there are a couple of obvious grammatical errors in the subtitles. As a criticism, though, that's hardly worth drawing your attention to and does little to detract from one's enjoyment of the film.
There is a Making Of (18m37s), which does an excellent job of explaining the background to the production, Zhang Yimou's interest in the story after making House Of Flying Daggers and the Yunnan province in China where the film is set. With interviews from Zhang Yimou and Ken Takakura, there isn't a great deal of depth in this feature but it does feel sufficient. There is also a selection of Trailers including Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, Capote, Memoirs of a Geisha and Mountain Patrol: Kekexili.
Unlike the rather impressive sets that saw the release of Hero and House Of Flying Daggers, this rather skimps on the bonus material but as one who often has to endure a seemingly endless amount of behind-the-scenes features, I can't say that I mourn their absence. Frankly, with a twenty-minute making of, there's quite enough here, particularly when the film is as good as this one.