Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles (Bilingual) [Import]
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For the first time in years, aging fisherman Takata Gou-ichi boards a bullet train to Tokyo when he learns his estranged son is gravely ill. But at the hospital, his son refuses to see him. Daughter-in-law Rie urges Takata to watch a videotape of a documentary his son was filming in rural China. Moved by what he sees, Takata vows to complete his son's work. Though laden with obstacles, his odyssey into the heart of China and the kinship he develops with a fatherless boy and the villagers who care for him recaptures a sense of family he thought he had lost a long time ago. From the acclaimed director of House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower.
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Seeking a crack in which to connect emotionally with his son, the father then goes to China - where he does not speak the language - and seeks out a Chinese opera star so that he can film a production of "Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles." Unfortunately, the opera star is now in jail, but that does not stop the father from trying to film the production in Chinese prison. The father's desperate struggle to do one last thing to connect with his son - a true act of love - transforms all who begin to come into contact with him...and in old age, the father learns the value of openness in emotions that had been so bottled up before.
Altogether, a wonderful film experience. Truly, I was shaken emotionally.
While the story itself is intriguing, it wouldn't work without amazing acting from all the cast (particularly Ken Takakura as Takata), stunning cinematography, and a lyrical script. All of these elements are present in Zhang's other films, like Hero and Curse of the Golden Flower. It's a clear measure of Zhang's talent that he is able to abandon the historic epic form of those other movies and instead utilize these elements to create an intimate, emotional portrait.
Some viewers may be reluctant to view Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles because all of the dialogue is in Chinese. However, the movie (like its protagonist) transcends language to movingly convey its core emotions. It's rare to find a moving portrayal of such basic emotions in any language, much less a portrayal that is also entertaining. For that reason alone, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles is a film that deserves a large audience.
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.
When traveling in China you hear about all of the freedom Mr. Zhang has to do whatever project nowadays as he is praised on CTV regularly, but it is still amazing that he was allowed to do so much in a prison.
Once again as in "Not One Less" he has shown that he gets to the heart of the story better without using an expensive cast of professional actors with big names. I think this saves him having to battle with professional actors about the acting craft that they "know so much about" and the roles come off the way he wants them to.
I think Mr. Takakura (a tried and true Japanese actor) did an excellent job as a foreigner in China and the film depicted realistically the difficulties of being a foreigner traveling in China. That is once again to the lattitude that Mr. Zhang is allowed currently and I want to thank him for his honesty because most Chinese do not recognize the difficulties of being a foreigner in China. Chinese people want to be good hosts but they also do not feel they should go beyond the status quo due to societal traditions.
It is Chinese tradition that there is heroic death and heroic recognition that moves others to become better. That is what has made their tradition of literature and film so rewarding in that one comes away with a feeling of improving one's self by completing the story and wanting to become better.
When Mr. Takata is given a VHS copy of his sons work, he discovers that his son has a passion for rural Chinese folk opera. One of these he discovers on the film is titled "Riding Alone For Thousands Of Miles." Apparently, the singer Li Jiamin (Playing himself) does not want to give a performance to his son Kenichi, as he has a cold. Therefore, he invites Kenichi to come to Yunnan province in China, where he will perform this for him. Kenichi takes him up on his offer. However, the father Mr. Takata learns from his daughter-in law, Rie, that his sons illness is terminal: Kenichi has cancer of the liver.
Trying to make amends for his past, Mr. Takata decides to go to China, seek out Li Jiamin, and record this play for his son--since his son cannot go himself. This is where the film takes us on a great journey of self discovery. Jasmine, a Japanese translator of Chinese, informs the father that Li Jiamin has been sentenced to three years prison. Going to extreme lengths, the father vows to do what he can to video record the performance in prison. Moreover, he must get permission from various bureaucratic agencies in China. I really liked the interaction between the Chinese characters and Mr. Takata. Especially the character Lingo (Lin Qiu) whose Japanese is not really that good.
There are funny scenes with Lingo and the Chinese characters in the film who believe Lingo does not have a good grasp, if any at all, of the Japanese language. With this, Mr. Takata is always in constant cellphone contact with the translator Jasmine, who must decipher what the Chinese officials and citizenry relate to Mr. Takata. As Mr. Takata eventually is given permission to video the performance in prison, he discovers that Li Jiamin will not perform until he sees his son. A son that he too is estranged from. Their are some breath-taking scenes of China, which reminded me of Takashi Mike's film "The Bird People Of China." Mr. Takata likes the way the Chinese interact with each other; sharing their joys and arguments in front of everyone--hiding nothing, and totally open. He finds this to be truly honest, and feels shame that he cannot feel the same too: But he does admire them for this.
Further, the films narrative takes the viewer on another story as well. The story of Yang Yang, the son of Li Jiamin. We see that Mr. Takata bonds with the boy, and tries to understand this young boy too. Maybe, he is reminiscing about his son when he was a child? Maybe something he failed to do as a father? Whatever the case, Mr. Takata is deeply moved by this young boy and his relationship to his father. This is a very good drama. It is not for everyone, but everyone should view it sometime in their life. It is highly recommended. I own the film, but recommend that others rent the film first, as it is a slow drama that may not resonate with others. I am biased in the fact that I really like this film a lot. Therefore, rent it first.
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