Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles (2005) / Drama
aka Qian Li Zou Dan Qi

MPAA Rated: Not rated, but probably PG for thematic material
Running Time: 97 min.

Cast: Ken Takakura, Shinobu Terajima, Kiichi Nakai, Wen Jiang, Jiamin Li, Lin Qiu,
Director: Zhang Yimou

Screenplay: Zhang Yimou, Zou Jingzhi

Chinese director Zhang Yimou, having followed two epic films in Hero and The House of Flying Daggers, returns to his roots with a low-key drama that ends up being even better than his more high profile endeavors.  There is no kung fu to dazzle audiences, no dazzling color schemes, no breathtaking visions of idealized landscapes, and no lavish art and costumes to draw us into a sumptuous period piece.  This is a simple story about simple people, but nevertheless, still as powerful in its themes and moving in its emotional core so as to make a more lasting impression on all that view it. 

A middle-aged Japanese man named Takada (Takakura, Mr. Baseball) travels to rural China to try to do something for his estranged son who has just been diagnosed with terminal cancer.  Shortly before the diagnosis, the young man, who spent much of his time making documentaries on the mask operas of China, had made a promise to film a certain performer that claimed to be the greatest singer of one of the greatest of songs, entitled, "Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles", from the famed opera, "Romance of the Three Kingdoms".  Takada wants to do the film that his son intended, mostly as a way to show how much he truly loves him, despite their not having spoken in years.  Despite not knowing a word of Chinese (he employees some interpreters to assist), and being wholly unfamiliar with the customs of the land, Takada remains tenacious in his pursuit of filming the song as a gesture of his love and remorse for the years wasted in isolation.

It's a touching and unpretentious story, never lapsing into the overt manipulation that films of its ilk are prone to do, always staying true to the characters and their interests.  While the story itself yields no real surprises, that's just the way life works sometimes, and Yimou's style never falls into the trap of forcing things just to try to punch up dialogue or contrive tearjerker elements just to make the film seem weighty.  He keeps his sights modest, and stays on that level, reaping big rewards when the story finishes in a bittersweet fashion.

The ironies of the story are perhaps the most realized of the elements.  It's interesting to see a man that barely communicates with people in his own native country, and one that never communicates with his own son, must now find a way to communicate with a variety of people that cannot understand him.  All of this to create something that will allow Takada to communicate to his son, except his chosen form of communication is not through his own words, but through the symbolic gesture of the film he film he is trying to make.

The symbolism is readily apparent throughout, as are the many parallels between the relationships between fathers and sons, but these enhance the overall story rather than fall into the realm of artifice just for art's sake.  With understated finesse, Yimou keeps his story simple yet his themes complex, richly rewarding those that pay attention to the craftsmanship by which he has developed his soft and solemn tale.  Fans that enjoyed his more humanistic works, like Not One Less and The Road Home will find Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles to be a welcome return to form.

Qwipster's rating:

2006 Vince Leo