Riding Alone For Thousands Of Miles
Stars: Ken Takakura, Qiu Lin, Li Jiamin
Director: Zhang Yimou
** 1/2 (out of five)
The peculiar marvel — and occasional downfall — of so much recent Chinese cinema is its tendency to turn the most intimate story into an epic, with sweeping widescreen vistas and plots that range over thousands of miles.
The title of Zhang Yimou’s Riding Alone For Thousands Of Miles prepares you for this cinematic expansion right from the start, to less than successful effect, unfortunately.
Ken Takakura plays Takata, a Japanese fisherman estranged from his son, who goes on a journey to remote provincial China as a way of rebuilding their connection when he learns his son is dying. When his son’s wife gives him a videotape of her husband’s work and passion — documenting Chinese folk operas — he doesn’t waste a minute before booking a flight and an interpreter and making his way to Yunnan province in Southern China, in search of a singer his son had promised to film a year earlier, singing in the masked opera that gives the film its title.
Takata comes up against a wall of bureaucratic opposition when he discovers that the singer is in jail, but he perseveres, overcoming the entropic system with ingenuity and sincerity. He gets permission to film in the jail, but has to stop when Li Jiamin, the singer, is unable to perform. Through his tears, the singer explains that he misses his own son, who he abandoned in a remote village years earlier. Takata sees this as a step on his journey to redemption, and sets off to bring the boy to the prison to see his father.
Despite his efforts to turn this into such a visually rich story, the director relies on copious voiceover, a running internal monologue that’s supposed to explain what the taciturn, solitary Takata is unable to express to other people. Perhaps it’s partially the fault of the translated subtitles, but it has the effect of making viewers feel like they’re being led along, told explicitly what Takata is thinking, instead of joining him on his journey, experiencing each emotional revelation and allowing it to resonate, unqualified by the words that Takata obviously mistrusts.