(Qian li zou dan qi)

Directed by Zhang Yimou. 2005.

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Far removed from his politically and socially conscious films of the 90s that reflected the institutionalized oppression in early twentieth-century China, Zhang Yimou's latest efforts have ranged from martial-arts films that come to terms with the status quo to bland character studies of village life. Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, an unconvincing drama about the emotional fallout from the lack of communication between a taciturn father and his seriously ill son, continues in the same lightweight vein. Although it is a well-crafted film, the best thing it has going for it is the wonderful performance of 70-year old veteran Yazuka actor Ken Takakura whose emotionless persona makes Clint Eastwood look like Robin Williams.  

The story involves the estrangement (never explained) between Gou-ichi Takata and his son Ken-ichi (Kiichi Nakai) who is dying of Liver Cancer in a Tokyo hospital. After traveling from his fishing village to the hospital and being turned away by his son, Takata resolves to make a final gesture of reconciliation. He watches videotape given to him by his daughter Rie (Shinobu Teraima) that was filmed in the Chinese province of Yunnan where Kenichi had been gathering material for a research project on Chinese folk opera. Takata decides to travel to China to fulfill his son's thwarted goal - to film the opera singer Li Jiamin (Li Jiamin) singing a selection from the folk opera Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles. 

Battling a language barrier, Takata's trip to China is Lost in Translation redux, only with some unlikely characters showing the happy face of Communism. These include a prison warden with a soft heart toward his prisoners, robust, happy villagers in a remote area of rural China, and a bright, uninhibited eight-year old who is constantly tugging at our heartstrings. Takata, assisted by earnest interpreters Jasmine (Jiang Wen) and Lingo (Lin Qui), learns that the singer Li Jiamin is serving a prison term of three years and an appeal for filming in the prison means getting permission from high level ministers in the Chinese bureaucracy. Unlike the experiences of Qui Ji in an earlier Zhang film, however, the experience is not overly daunting for Takata who is singularly resolved to accomplish his goal.  

After viewing a filmed message from Takata pleading for permission to film Li performing a song from the opera in prison, the Bureau Chief is moved and grants him permission. Unfortunately, when the filming is set, Li has too many unresolved emotional issues concerning his own son to allow him to continue and Takata resolves to find Yang Yang, Li's son, and bring him to his father in order to allow him to complete the filming. Ultimately the journey of Takata for his son turns out to be one of discovery for himself and, as he must rely on the good will and support of the people around him to achieve his purpose, he discovers his own ability to give and receive love. Riding Alone has a good message - that open and honest communication in a family is more important than being right but the message is undercut by a surfeit of schmaltz and plot contrivances and Yimou again fails to reach the magic of the earlier years. 


Howard Schumann
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