Despite what the title may imply, this contemporary drama by the director of Hero isn't about how Appellate Judge Dan Mancini feels when he's on a Lifecycle at the gym.
"I am going to China. I decided this suddenly. I don't know what is out there and I'm not good at dealing with people. However, I feel compelled to go." -Gouichi Takata
After the international success of wire-fu epics Hero and House of Flying Daggers, the gentle soulfulness of Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles isn't necessarily what we expect from director Zhang Yimou. In fact, it's a bit of a return to his middle period. After cutting his teeth on action fare like Codename Cougar and before making lavish epics, Zhang made gentle dramas and comedies about internalized emotional experience like Happy Times, The Road Home, and Not One Less. Zhang's eye for beautiful visuals and a knock-out performance by Japanese actor Ken Takakura (Black Rain) ensure that Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles is a simple tale told with an excess of style and beauty.
Facts of the Case
Our story concerns a rural Japanese fisherman named Gouichi Takata (Takakura). For at least a decade, Takata and his son Kenichi have been estranged. When Gouichi's daughter-in-law Rie (Shinobu Terajima) informs him that Kenichi is gravely ill, he takes the opportunity to visit Tokyo and hopefully reconcile with his son before it's too late. Takata's visit appears to be for naught when Kenichi refuses to see him, until Rie gives the old man a videotape of Kenichi's unfinished documentary about Chinese folk opera. Before falling ill, Kenichi had planned to return to China to finish his film by shooting a singer named Li Jiamin performing an opera called Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles. The opera tells the story of Lord Guan, who set out on a long journey to help a friend in need. When doctors deliver devastating news about Kenichi's condition, Gouichi decides to travel to China himself to finish the documentary. Only by connecting with the otherness of China and its people can Takata find the resolve to open himself up to his own son.
More than anything, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles is a showcase for Ken Takakura's dignified reticence. The actor isn't just in nearly every scene in the movie, he's in nearly every shot. His careworn face and soulful eyes carry the show, offering a visual landscape almost as rich as the exotic rural Chinese villages he visits. His gruff voice and the stillness of his body exude a deep personal knowledge of sorrow.
Upon arriving in China, Takata discovers that Li Jiamin has been imprisoned by the Communist Chinese government. This leads to a particularly powerful piece of acting by Takakura in a film that is full of powerful Takakura moments. Desperate to gain access to Li in prison, Takata videotapes himself taking responsibility for the rift between his son and himself, and begging for the opportunity to film Li. Later, during Takata's first attempt to shoot the folk opera, Li breaks into snotty sobs, saying he can't sing while shackled. Rather than being disappointed or angry, Takata is impressed with the singer's ability to weep openly in front of other people. This is the sort of tender but fiercely reserved man Takata is. Ken Takakura embodies the character perfectly. It's a superb performance.
In another superb set piece, Takata's group searches a landscape of jagged buttes for a lost child named Yang Yang. When Takata finds the boy, the two are at first adversarial. Over the course of the day, their relationship blossoms into sweet friendship. It's a rather obvious way for Zhang to provide us a glimpse of Takata's relationship with his own son before things went sour. But Takakura's performance is so strong and Zhang's camera so skillfully captures the alien beauty of the buttes that one loses any sense of the sequence as a contrivance of screenwriting. Zhang lulls us with the duel landscapes of the jagged, beautiful hills and Takata's equally jagged and beautiful soul.
Though the epitome of everything a movie like Hero is not, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles shares with Zhang's action-epic an immaculate sense of visual style. Riding Alone sports a gently stylized color scheme. The few scenes in Tokyo are shifted radically toward cool greens and blues. At first, China adds earthy browns and reds to the cool palette. Eventually these warmer colors overtake the cooler ones, as though the colors of Takata's world reflect the melting of his heart and blossoming of his humanity.
Sony's DVD handles Zhang's stylized approach well. Colors are vivid and beautiful. Blacks are deep and rich, while whites are pure. Grain is present but controlled. A slight bit of edge enhancement haloing is occasionally noticeable. The only other digital flaw I noticed was some noise in a hyper blue sky in a single shot at the end of the sequence in which Takata rescues Yang Yang.
The original Cantonese and Japanese soundtrack is offered in a Dolby 5.1 mix, as is a Portuguese dub. A French dub is offered in stereo surround. The original track is simple, but beautifully rendered in the surround mix.
The disc's only supplement is a making-of featurette that runs just shy of 19 minutes.
A careful study of strained relationships between fathers and sons, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles is a simple tale, simply told. That said, it packs a gut-punch of emotion.
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Scales of Justice
• The Making of Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles
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