Riding Alone For Thousands of Miles
by Zhang Yimou (China, 2005), (Mandarin/Japanese with English subtitles)
Reviewed by Volker Poelzl
Chinese director Zhang Yimou has achieved international fame with lavish historic and mythical production such as "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers," but "Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles" is quite a different cinematic endeavor. Instead of mythical heroes, flying daggers, and extravagant martial arts scenes, the story takes place in the present, in the real world, and with very real characters. This is how director Zhang Yimou describes his film: “This is a story about the present age. It describes the common people, the unimportant people, the real relationships between them. It’s actually quite different from filming an action movie. The scenes are simple, so you have to pay attention to the small details and be able to show the feelings between people.”
"Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles' is the story about a Japanese fisherman and his estranged son—and the unexpected role a Chinese mask opera plays in bringing the two closer together. In an attempt do to something for his ill son—who suffers from cancer—his father Takata (played by Takakura Ken) decides to complete a video documentary his son began to film in a remote town in China’s Yunnan province. Yunnan is located in southwest China and borders Burma,Vietnam, and Laos. Home to 42 million people spread across 25 different ethnic groups, Yunnan is among the most culturally diverse of China’s 23 provinces. The dramatic mountainscape of Yunnan forms the stunning backdrop of the movie and greatly contributes to the film’s visual appeal. What follows are not only great scenes of the local landscape and village life, but also the story of the father’s complicated task to film a presentation of the mask opera "Riding Alone for a Thousand Miles" by a respected local performer—who is in jail. The difficult task of obtaining a permit to film the opera in prison turns into a quest by the father to redeem himself for a mistake he made long ago which led to the estrangement between them.
What makes this movie interesting is how it places emphasis on the authentic portrayal of Chinese culture and the people in the southern Yunnan province. In line with the script—which calls for the amateur actors to express a plain relationship between people—none of the lead actors except Japanese star Takamura Ken have any acting experience. Two actual tour guides play those very roles in the movie, and most of the local actors seem to just play themselves. Even the performer of the masked opera, Li Jiang, plays himself. This gives an added layer of authenticity to the movie, and more realistically portrays the local culture, customs, and way of life. Like the father Takata, the audience experiences the typical daily reality of village life in Southern China. The more Takata becomes involved in his quest to film the masked opera for his son, the more he becomes involved in local culture and customs. Takata increasingly depends upon his local contacts and their good will to jump a number of bureaucratic hurdles to obtain the necessary permits. As it turns out, the story is not only about Takaka and his estranged ill son back in Japan, but also about the jailed opera singer Li Jiang, who has never met his own young illegitimate son.
To find out more about the movie, visit the website of the film’s U.S. distributor Sony Pictures: www.sonypictures.net/movies/ridingalone/.