Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles
Certain international directors are on the fringes of popular entertainment. The few who's films have the capacity to reach the general audience who only occasionally glimpses a foreign film of their own free will. A few who's name can guarantee some audience and at least an American distributor. Almodovar is probably chief among these, but in the Asian world, few film makers have earned as much respect and esteem as China's Zhang Yimou, and quite deservingly so. Yimou won his reputation with a string of exciting, exotic, and powerful dramas that introduced much of the western world to their first taste of Chinese Cinema. Since then his abrasive social commentary has died down and his films have alternated between the grand operatic martial arts epics (Hero/House of Flying Daggers) to the more intimate contemporary dramas (The Road Home/Happy Times). Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles is of the latter variety, which may be an apology to the people who found his last two martial arts films a little superficial. It also helps to explain why this internationally bankable filmmaker's new movie is only playing in one theater in all of Chicagoland.
Luckily for this reviewer, that theater (which was once a painful hour drive) now happens to be the closest one to me, and if the weather was nicer I could have walked if I wanted to. At times Riding Alone reaches depths of untold human emotion, and reminds us that before all the splendid choreography and action, that Yimou's films were known for their emotional appeal. I was reminded of To Live, which hits you so hard, you're convinced you've never seen suffering on screen portrayed quite so powerfully (and that's just in the first 10 minutes). Riding Alone doesn't beat its drama into you, it isn't overly deliberate (which occasionally To Live was). However there are twists and turns that seem rather predictable, but they're handled in a less obvious manner. The film, as the title would suggest is a journey, one without a clear destination, so therefore we don't really mind if we get taken on a bit of a detour.
The film isn't so much about one man's journey to connect with his son, as it is a celebration of China. Yimou may have gotten flack for being "international" and it seemed for a time (following the banning of To Live) that he may in fact spend the rest of his career in exile. However, Yimou has remained quite active in mainland China, and this film is a testament not only to the nation, but more importantly to the people that inhabit it. Its a rare breath of humanism in a cinematic world that seems overwrought with disassociation, and isolation. Yimou's China is one of beauty, community, and good will. This is a far cry from the China of Jia Zhang-Ke's films, and its not surprising, because these two men are at different stages of their lives and careers. Yimou had his rebellious stage, and seems to have settled in his ways, whereas Jia is still critical and doubtful, searching for truth. Yimou seems to have found his truth, and its a positive reaffirming truth. At times you may be slightly skeptical of his Capra-esque "everyone helps everyone out" type of attitude, but it is a deliberately positive affirmation, and one that celebrates the rural ideology of cooperation. Even in the most remote village, no one seems poor, and no one seems unhappy. When Yang Yang's (Yang Zhenbo) mother dies, it is the village that takes to raising the child, and all of them provide for him as well as make decisions regarding his well being. There really is no concept of possessions in this village.
The characters are unmotivated by money, and take to helping Gou-Ichi Takata (Ken Takakura) on his quest not out of friendship but out of compassion. As we progress through the story we realize that Takata's dying son Kenichi wasn't even all that close with these "friends" helping along Takata, they are simply doing this for him basically out of the kindness of their heart. The journey isn't necessarily important to the story. Takata decides to try and film a masked opera for his dying son that he never got to see. Well naturally it has to be made a little more complicated, so numerous obstacles are thrown in the way. If we take the film as a literal story, then we'd be bored out of our minds. However it is a film of discovery. Takata is learning about his son (who he had no contact with for nearly 10 years) and discovering a great many similarities to himself. Takata also sees himself, as well as his son in the paralleled relationship between Li Jiamin and his son Yang.
One of the things Kenichi loved about China wasn't just the opera's but the landscape of China. Early in the film we see a great many shots of the mountain ranges of mainland China, and we get a sense that Takata has a great appreciation for them. Therefore it isn't surprising to hear that most of Kenichi's time spent in China was simply gazing at the mountains. Takata gets a first hand look at them as he and Yang get lost wandering off. Yimou got his start as a cinematographer and this has remained obvious in all of his films as a director. His eye is for the visuals, not so much on continuity or rhythm. He takes his camera high above viewing the winding roads, and extreme long shots of the mountains and the great wilderness that is the heart of China. In a move paralleled in the Constant Gardener, he contrasts the rich orange and yellow colors of China to a sterile, pale, hospital like atmosphere of Japan. I think the contrast is unnecessary and demeaning (as I did to a far greater extent in Gardener). Luckily it isn't as blatant, and is only something that appears later in the film. The sun always seems to be shining in China, and even at night the moon is so bright it creates shadows. In Japan the sun always seems to buried behind clouds, whether it be in Tokyo, or even in Takata's seaside fishing home.
The film is flawed, and comes off as a slight disappointment coming from Yimou's 2004 releases. However its a different film, and you get a sense that he needed to make a smaller film like this that not only was a little more intimate, but also allowed him to deal with a contemporary China, just as the flawed but important Story of Qiu Ju did. Takakura gives a splendid understated performance in the film, and is always capable of letting us in on exactly how he's feeling without ever really being able to express it as a character. Sometimes his voice over narration helps to oversimplify already obvious moments, but you have to remember Yimou is a popular International filmmaker, so you can't blame him if he has a tendency to dumb it down on occasion.