“Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles” sees Zhang Yimou returning to the kind of intimate drama with which he made his name as a director. Eschewing the flashy visuals of “Hero” and the cheap melodrama of “House of Flying Daggers”, “Miles” tells a simple, yet emotional story about the complex relationships between fathers and their sons. The result is a film with far more depth than Zhang Yimou’s recent efforts, and one which is both moving and genuine.
The plot follows Gou-ichi (Ken Takakura, who Western viewers may recognise from “Black Rain”), a fisherman who travels to Tokyo to visit his son, hospitalised with liver cancer, and with whom he has not spoken in many years. Although his son refuses to see him, Gou-ichi is shown a videotape of one of the son’s recent trips to the Yunnan province of China researching folk opera, in which he attempted, but failed to record a performance of the titular opera by Li Jiamin (an actual opera performer, playing himself).
Gou-ichi decides to travel to Yunnan himself, thinking to heal the rift with his son by succeeding where the son failed and capturing the singer on camera. Unfortunately, this turns out to be far more complicated than expected, not least because he speaks no Chinese, and is forced to rely upon Lingo, a friendly local who speaks only basic Japanese, for translation. To make matters worse, it transpires that Li is now in jail, having stabbed a man who insulted him for having an illegitimate son, and is too sad to perform the opera. Gou-ichi refuses to give up, and embarks on a long journey to Li’s remote village with the aim of bringing the performer’s unseen son, now eight years old to visit him in prison.
With the stories of the two fathers and their estranged sons, a parallel becomes apparent between Li, who is openly emotional, weeping at having not seen his son, and Gou-ichi, a silent, stolid man who rarely admits his feelings, even to himself. As the two relationships converge, Gou-ichi meets Li’s son and begins to open up, giving the viewer a glimpse into his heart and at the same time revealing more about his own son, with whom he gradually finds that he has more in common with than previously thought.
Thankfully, Zhang steers well clear of cliché, and “Riding Alone for Thousand of Miles” is warm hearted in a wholly believable way, alternating skilfully between drama and light amusement. The film is frequently quite touching, whether through the central story itself, or the simple acts of kindness and friendship Gou-ichi encounters on his travels. The characters are convincing and interesting, especially Gou-ichi himself (Zhang supposedly wrote the role specifically for Takakura), making for an affecting and compelling story which follows a winding rather than predictable path to its moving conclusion. The supporting cast and the villagers themselves (mostly played by non-actors) are similarly impressive, and give the film a real boost.
Zhang directs the film with an understated style, with a naturalistic approach to the scenes of characters and dialogue which lend them an air of realism. The beautiful scenery is captured in an honest, yet breathtaking fashion through a series of static long shots in which the characters are often dwarfed by the surrounding mountains. This gives an impression both of isolation and intimacy, nicely complimenting both the geographical and highly personal sides of Gou-ichi’s journey.
“Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles” is an impressive film, though one which is unlikely to appeal to fans of the director’s more recent martial arts popcorn efforts. Free from glamour or pretension, it quietly but effectively tells a very human story in a convincing manner which communicates emotions through whispers rather than the crass shouting which the director has been prone to of late.
Yimou Zhang (director) / Yimou Zhang, Jingzhi Zou (screenplay)
CAST: Kiichi Nakai …. Kenichi, Takada’s son
Ken Takakura …. Takada, fisherman
Shinobu Terajima …. Rie