Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles



Hosted by the Japan Society

Reviewed by Lyle Sylvander (Yokohama-shi, 2001-02)

(Summer 2006 Issue of the JETAA NY Newsletter)

On August 24, Japan Society hosted the New York premiere of the film Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles.  Japan Society was kind enough to provide JETAA NY with 20 free tickets for the special event.  JETAA NY and the Newsletter would like to extend special thanks to Michelle Andrews and Christy Jones of Japan Society for their hospitality and for enabling Lyle Sylvander to attend and provide the below film review.

Zhang Yimou’s new film Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles (the title hopefully sounds better in Mandarin) marks an anomaly in the great director’s filmography:  previously, Zhang’s narratives concerned strong- willed women.  His early collaboration with Gong Li (Red Sorghum, Ju Dou, To Live, Raise the Red Lantern) brought both of them international recognition –- so much so that the two were inseparable.   When that partnership ended, he formed a new one with Zhang Ziyi in The Road Home and the martial arts extravaganzas Hero and House of Flying Daggers.  Even the films made in between –- Not One Less and Happy Times –- concerned female protagonists.   Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles is Zhang’s first film to revolve around a male protagonist.  In fact, Zhang seems to be seriously examining the notion of patriarchy or fatherhood –- the female characters exist on the periphery while the plot involves not one, but two, father-son relationships.

Playing the lead in Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles is the famous Japanese actor Ken Takakura. Takakura has appeared in over 100 films during his lifetime, most famously for a series of yakuza films during the 1960s and 1970s and the Hollywood film Black Rain (1989).  At one point, the Japanese media dubbed the hard-boiled actor the “Clint Eastwood of Japan.”  In Riding, he plays Takada, a man who is estranged from his son Ken-ichi, who is dying of cancer.  Takada travels from his seaside village to a Tokyo hospital but Ken-chi refuses to see him.  When he learns that Ken-ichi had been studying a form of Chinese folk drama and that he had planned to visit China and videotape the singer Li Jiamin, he decides to undertake the project himself.  When he arrives in China, he finds that Li Jiamin (a Chinese opera singer playing himself) is in jail and unable to sing.   Li is also estranged from his young son, who is just a child, and Takada’s situation reminds him of his own.   Takada journeys to rural Yunnan Province to find Li’s son and bring him to see his father.  Takada’s first journey is an attempt to bridge the gap between himself and his own son while the second journey is one between Li and his son.   Despite the title, Takada does not travel alone but with a comically inept translator played by Qiu LinRiding Alone for Thousands of Miles refers to a song in the literary classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms in which a general selflessly embarks on a long journey at his friend’s bequest.

The film naturally rests on the talents of Takakura and he does not disappoint.  He displays a surface stoicism throughout yet exudes tenderness within.   It is a sublimely nuanced performance from a masterful actor.  Yang Zhenbo is cute and charming as Li’s son and he and Takura interact well even though neither speaks the other’s language.

Zhang has also directed his film with style and restraint, only giving in to excessive sentimentality in the final reel.  Unlike his previous two films, Hero and House of Flying Daggers, Riding employs a static camera throughout and dispenses with flashy color-coded systems.  Cinematographer Xiaoding Zhao shoots the film in a subtle blue tinge and his compositions highlight the natural beauty of Yunnan Province.  The understated composition and pacing of the film is more in line with refined Japanese art, along the lines of directors Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi, rather than Zhang’s usual epic scope. By doing so, this Chinese director acknowledges his own respect for the fathers of Japanese cinema.

And judging from the audible sobs in the house and the round of applause during the end credits, everyone in attendance had great respect for not only the film but Japan Society’s wonderful event as well.

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