Like the rugged Japanese seacoast he lives on, Gou-ichi Takata, now in his seventies, is a cold and remote figure. He only decides to leave his Spartan quarters after receiving a distraught phone call from his daughter-in-law Rie informing him that his son Ken-ichi, who he has been estranged from for decades, is dying of liver cancer in a Tokyo hospital.
After arriving at the hospital, he discovers that his son will not see him. He cannot forgive him for a decades-old offense that is never explained in a narrative that gathers strength from words unspoken. As impassive as ever, Takata shrugs his shoulders and exits the hospital. As he reaches the parking lot, Rie catches up with him to fill him in on his son’s greatest passion, videotaping folk opera on location in China. Together they then watch a tape made by him a year earlier in Yunnan province of a celebrated local troupe. If Ken-ichi returns the following year, the lead singer will perform “Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles,” a song that he brags is his specialty.
In an attempt to reconcile with his dying son, Takata decides to go to Yunnan province, track down the lead singer Li Jiamin, and tape him performing this song. Thus begins “Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles,” a masterpiece of a film by Zhang Yimou, China’s greatest director. Its theme resonates with one found in some of the world’s greatest literature, namely psychological and moral transformation in the face of death–either on the part of the person fated to die, or those close to him or her.
We are reminded of Tolstoy’s terminally ill Ivan Ilyich who acknowledges his brother-in-law’s alarmed gaze: “I have changed, eh?” The change, of course, that Tolstoy is concerned with is psychological rather than physical. It also evokes Akira Kurosawa’s “Ikiru,” (To Live) a film about a cold and aging bureaucrat, who, after learning that he has incurable cancer, dedicates the remainder of his life to making things better for other people. Indeed, this film is “Riding’s” closest relative thematically. The only difference between Takata and the bureaucrat in “Ikiru” is that it his son’s imminent passing rather than his own that compels Takata to take stock of his life and to seek transcendence.
Once he arrives in Yunnan province, Takata learns that the singer Li Jiamin is serving a three year prison term, the consequence of stabbing a fellow performer in the face with a wooden dagger for questioning his talent. When his translator advises him that it will be impossible to film inside a Chinese prison, Takata–stony-faced as ever–will not be daunted. He is like the character celebrated in the song: the mighty general Guan Yu who sacrificed titles and riches to ride to the aid of a friend
Takata is joined in his quest by “Lingo”, another translator who can barely speak a word of Japanese, but who compensates for this by a willingness to go to the ends of the earth
with Takata, whose paternal devotion moves him beyond words. In their quixotic quest to film what defies filming, the comic Lingo serves as a Sancho Panza.
Once the two men break down the resistance of Chinese governmental and prison authorities in the course of a series of bittersweet comical encounters, they set up the camera in the recreation room of the prison. But just as Li Jiamin is cued to sing “Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles,” he breaks down sobbing. He confesses that he is estranged from his own 8 year old out-of-wedlock son, who lives in the remote Stone Village in Yunnan province and who he had abandoned at birth. Takata’s quest reminds him of his own loss and he is now too distraught to perform. Takata decides on the spot to travel to Stone Village and bring the boy Yang Yang back to the prison, thus reconciling all parties. Suffice it to say, that this new stage of the quest is as quixotic as everything that has preceded it.
Thankfully, “Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles” marks a return to the more humanistic concerns of films such as the 1999 “Not One Less” and the 1987 “Red Sorghum”. After making a typical Jet Li vehicle titled “Hero” in 2002 and another martial arts spectacle titled “House of the Flying Dagger” in 2004, both of which unfortunately embrace the computer graphics approach to combat scenes (characters defy gravity repeatedly as if in a Chagall painting), Zhang Yimou refocuses his talents on ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. He has also cast nonprofessionals once again in key roles, including Yang Zhenbo as Yang Yang, who was selected from 70,000 boys who auditioned for the part! The singer Li Jiamin is played by Li Jiamin himself, a veteran of Chinese folk opera.
But the key casting decision was to feature veteran Japanese actor Ken Takakura in the role of Gou-ichi Takata. Takakura, who might be called the Clint Eastwood of Japanese film, was essential to the realization of Zhang Yimou’s artistic vision. In press notes for the screening, Zhang says, “I have always wanted to work with Ken Takakura. I started writing this script five years ago. It is tailor-made for him. If Takakura didn’t like the story, I would have started from scratch.”
Charges have been raised from time to time that Zhang Yimou is an apologist for the Chinese government. Indeed, “Hero” has been interpreted as a veiled defense of contemporary authoritarian rule. The film depicts ancient China being unified under the cruel but necessary rule of the legendary King of Qin. One imagines that Zhang is grappling with such questions by having the prison warden remonstrate with Takata over the need to keep film-makes out of Chinese prisons, since they have only been interested in turning world opinion against their society unfairly. Of course, that politically-charged goal does not mitigate the very real inhumanity found in Chinese prisons. Western hostility to China should not make us accept the fact that it rates number one in the world for capital punishment.
Ultimately, however, “Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles” is not about politics. It is a very personal film that seeks to dramatize human relationships that will be with us under any social system. In that respect, it finds its place alongside the best work of Akira Kurosawa, who has obviously had an impact on Zhang Yimou, as well as William Shakespeare whose plays provided the plot for several of Kurosawa’s films.
“Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles” opens Friday, Sept. 1 at Lincoln Plaza and Quad Cinemas in New York. I give this film my very highest recommendation.