After a solid start with a remarkable series of films in the early 1990's, Zhang Yimou has lately become something like the Martin Scorsese of Chinese cinema. For every character-rich, personal film he makes--the kind of film that made him a household name--he now mounts two or three big, action-packed epics tailored for maximum commercial success. Happily, RIDING ALONE FOR THOUSANDS OF MILES, is of the former variety.
Ken Takakura is a quiet force of nature as he struggles to take unexpected and often inscrutable steps to atone for unnamed offenses against his estranged son, now dying of liver cancer. This leads him on a quixotic journey to remote parts of China. His character, Takata, attempts to videotape a masked performance that is missing from his son's cherished collection of Chinese folk operas. The plot, simplified, is this: "one thing leads to another . . . ." In other words, this is a road movie, purely but not ever simply.
It is a melancholy film, but one with moments of deep comic relief. Takata is left to the devices of a tour guide and "translator," Lingo, whose broken Japanese is so mixed up with his broken English as to make him virtually useless. When language barriers arise (as they constantly do), Takata must phone his original translator, Jasmine, who had to bow out when the quest ran into obstacles. At one point, Takata and Lingo find themselves in a remote village, where they have encountered an apparent impasse with the village elders. When Lingo is unable to translate the villagers' wishes to Takata, there is a hilarious parade of the entire party, up the steps of the terraced village to the highest rooftop--the only place in town where there is a cell phone signal.
This kind of story, where the narrative walks a razor's edge between sentimentality and earned emotion, requires a sure hand at camera placement. In this respect, Zhang, who started out as a cinematographer under Chen Kaige, is one of the most assured directors alive. His close-ups occur mainly on Takakura, whose face is all restrained pain. With the exception of two (related) scenes of explosive emotion, the camera tends to move away and give the characters--and audience--a respectful distance.
This Sony Pictures DVD boasts an ultra-crisp image to complement the perfectly executed photography. Set mostly in Yunnan Province, with its rolling green moon-scapes and forests of vertical rock formations, RIDING ALONE might have been a series of postcards in the hands of another director. But unlike the candy-colored cinematography of Zhang's most recent three action epics, the reds, greens, and browns that make up almost the entire color palette are muted with just enough gray to keep one's attention on the characters, not the backdrop.
Like Zhang's film NOT ONE LESS (1999), this is a story of an insular character who thrusts himself out into the wide world and finds that values follow actions. Takata, a near-recluse at the start, finds faith, friendship, compassion and forgiveness in his journey. It is a rare privilege to take that journey with him.