Review of Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles (千里走单骑, China/Japan, 2005), A Toho Co. (in Japan)/Sony Pictures Classics (in U.S.) release of a Gilla Co. (Japan)/Beijing New Picture Film Co., Elite Group (2004) Enterprises (China) presentation of an Edko Films (H.K.)/Zhang Yimou Studio (China) production.
Reviewed by USC Student William Velarde
Director: Zhang Yimou, Yasuo Furuhata
Producers: Xiu Jian, Zhang Weiping, Bill Kong
Cinematographer: Zhao Xiaoding, Daisaku Kimura
Art Director: Sun Li
Screenwriters: Zou Jingzhi
Editor: Cheng Long
Music: Guo Wenjing
Sound (Dolby Digital): Tao Jing
Running time: 107 MIN.
Cast: Ken Takakura, Shinobu Terajima, Kiichi Nakai, Li Jiamin, Qiu Lin, Yang Zhenbo (Mandarin, Japanese dialogue)
Release in China: 2006
Shaoyi’s Rating: A (Exceptional)
Zhang Yimou’s Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles is a touching multi-national production that, in both its compelling narrative and the stellar performances delivered by an international cast, helps point the way forward for Chinese cinema while delivering an enjoyable work. The laconic protagonist, Gouichi Takata, is a Japanese man that, in his grief following his wife’s death, fled to a remote fishing village in Japan. In so doing, he left his son Kenichi feeling abandoned, leading to an enmity by his son that Gouichi was never able to fully overcome. When he arrives in Tokyo to attend to his hospitalized son, his daughter-in-law Rie gives him a video produced by his son in his efforts to record the Chinese opera “Riding Alone of Thousands of Miles” by a man that espouses to be the preeminent performer of the work. Gouichi immediately sets off for the remote village visited by his son in an effort to achieve absolution in his son’s eyes. His efforts are stymied by the actor’s incarceration and his grief at being separated from his illegitimate son, whom Gouichi promises to bring to the actor in an effort to make the performance occur. While his efforts are in vain – mechanical problems and his son’s illness combine to preclude the elder Takata from returning to Tokyo with the recorded performance – he ultimately makes his peace both with his own past through his caretaking of the actor’s son and with Kenichi, who was deeply moved by his father’s efforts.
Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles is a film with a refreshing “microfocus”, specially the meaning of paternal love and the contrast between the Japanese and Chinese cultures. While he never has the opportunity to address his ailing son before his death, the deep significance of Gouichi’s journey is not lost to his son. Gouichi is a man of few words but yet of very deep thoughts and emotions, and while we understand that his lack of communication after his wife’s death was possibly the biggest factor in the falling out between his son and him, his facility in speaking to the audience in his interior monologue serves to give life to what would otherwise be a typical story of regret and redemption.
The effusively emotional Li Jiamin, in his role as the opera performer, serves as a cinematic foil for the Japanese protagonist, as his ability to cry and lament in public is in harsh contrast to Gouichi’s difficulty in letting any emotion shine through. While the movie’s narrative remains moving throughout, arguably the most powerful moment in the film is when the proud Gouichi, in begging for permission to film the incarcerated Li and aware of the gravity of the situation and the lack of hope he would otherwise have, cries in front of the camera. Gouichi later notes that his staid demeanor is not a manifestation of control but rather of an inability to open up to others, a possible consequence of the grief following his wife’s death. Watching him with Li’s son, alone, is thereby as enjoyable for the audience, who finally had the definite proof of the compassion of which Gouichi had always shone dimly, as it was for the protagonist.
In addition to its narrative, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles is notable in its use of both comedy and cinematography to maintain the proper tone for the film. There is a sort of tragic humor that pervades throughout the film – indeed, the main reason the protagonist even goes to China is based upon the assumption that this actor and this play were worth the trouble – but instead of detracting from the basic messages of the narrative, it infuses it with an air of realism. Zhang demonstrates the basic humor behind life’s incongruities, such as when Gouichi’s translator hangs up his banners upside down during his touching speech and when Gouichi films Li’s son going to the bathroom while the two are completely lost. Moreover, there is stunning imagery throughout the film, such as shots of the protagonist gazing into the grandeur of the mountains and the oceans. While lacking the vibrant colors of Ju Dou or Hero for a more mature subtlety, these juxtapositions of man upon nature reflect the deep loneliness that both his son and he felt throughout their lives.