Veteran actor Ken Takakura dwells on past mistakes in this drama from The director of House of Flying Daggers
When western audiences talk about cinema from East Asia, a few specific genres (and movies associated with them) spring to mind, specifically: horror, marital arts, historical epics, yakuza/triad and anime. These are the bombastic, over-the-top, visceral films that break the foreign market because of how different they are to the films we usually get ’round these parts. A picture with a title like Chainsaw Schoolgirl Versus the Explosion Yakuza would never get made and given wide release here, despite Robert Rodriguez’s best efforts, so when we hear of a foreign film coming out here with a premise a little different to what we’re used to, we jump on that, it’s why Tartan had a label titled Asian Extreme.
However, our inclination towards these kinds of films tends to result in a disregard for comedies or dramas which put more focus on softer, human stories. It’s not to say some don’t break through: films such as Tokyo Story, Departures and Adrift in Tokyo are low-key, sentimental stories that don’t tell big, sprawling adventures, but rather keep a story small and focused on its key cast. And this is where Zhang Yimou’s wondrous Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles comes in. Zhang is probably better known in the West for the films sandwiching Riding Alone – the wuxia epics House of Flying Daggers, Hero, and Curse of the Golden Flower. However, he enjoyed a huge success before those films making comedy-dramas of all kinds. Riding Alone feels like a return to those films.
The film centres on Gouichi Takata (Ken Takakura), an elderly Japanese man who learns his estranged son Kenichi (Kiichi Nakai) has been hospitalised, and returns to see him and make amends. However, his son has still not forgiven Gouichi for leaving him after the death of his mother. In an attempt to learn about his son, he watches a video tape given to him by his daughter-in-law (Shinobu Terajima), where Kenichi is filming some Nuo opera singers. One of the singers (Li Jiamin) promises to perform Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles when Kenichi (who is a scholar on the subject) returns. However, Kenichi never could, and so Gouichi makes up his mind to find the singer and film him.
In order to do this, he needs to travel to China, to the remote village where the Nuo performers are, and in his quest he aided by a translator and a local guide (played by, and named, Jiang Wen and Qiu Lin respectively). Wen leaves relatively early, and so for the most part he is stuck with Lin, an affable guide whose Japanese, to put it lightly, could certainly use some improving. Gouichi learns that the singer has been jailed and is too sad to sing, having not seen his son for years. So Gouichi decides to find the village his son is in and bring him to see his father, all the while having to deal with language barriers, beaurocracy and everything that comes with being lost in a foreign land.
Ken Takakura is the strongest aspect of the film. Takakura and his trademark stoicism bring a real sense of melancholy, isolation and confusion which the audience can share in. He might not be put into particularly wacky scenarios or situations, but the ordinary lives of the people he sees and meets with are just bizarre and alien enough – no matter how friendly – to have him ask for help wherever he can find it. Jiang Wen and Qiu Lin provide these roles and the first thing worth pointing out is that neither one of them were actors when they were cast – and neither was Li Jiamin, who nails every scene he’s in. All three of them held the positions they do in the film when they were cast which sounds like a risky idea, but comes off as genuine. Lin is in the majority of the film alongside Takakura and they work excellently together. Takakura hides an understandable frustration under a calm exterior, while Lin tries everything he can to be understood with the limited Japanese he knows. They might not be Abbot and Costello but they certainly make a good duo. The scenes with Li Jiamin’s son do feel like they go on longer than they need to, even if these are the scenes where Gouichi is meant to do the most development. By the time we reach the child’s village, we’ve identified with Gouichi and he has already made strong character progress. Nevertheless, they result in some of the most striking landscape shots, and some smaller moments where Gouichi tries to relate to the child.
Speaking of landscape shots, this film is breathtakingly beautiful to look at. Much like Daggers, Hero and Golden Flower, Zhang makes the best use of his surroundings. Gouichi and his companions travel through many rural parts of China. The location plays a big part in the film, both representing how alone and lost our main character is, but along with the title (which refers to a story in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which tells of Guan Yu’s dangerous journey to reunite with his brother), and the operatic theme throughout, is reminiscent of older, timeless stories and makes the film feel epic. The scope of the story itself is small, but Zhang does a lot with it, framing his shots to put us in the mind of his main character. Gouichi’s emotional journey is nothing he haven’t seen before, but the camerawork, locations and casting definitely make it stand out among similar films.
Verdict: Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles is equal parts as despondent, hopeful and thoughtful as the title suggests, with some stellar location shooting and even better performances.