My math teacher told me the closest distance between two points is a straight line. In the Zhang Yimou film Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, the two points are an old man and his terminally ill, estranged son; the straight line isn't one, following the elderly gent away from Japan and his son to southwest China as he endeavors to film a mask-opera singer perform the greatest mask opera ever so that he can show it to his son back in Tokyo and be reconciled with him. Warning: This film is more than just geometrically challenged.
Follow me on this one: The old man is Takata (Ken Takakura), a Japanese fisherman whose son, Kenichi, is dying in a hospital. The father and son haven't talked for 10 years, and Kenichi refuses to see Takata. The dad watches a documentary Kenichi made about a great mask-opera singer, Li Jiamin. In the doc, the singer invites Kenichi to return the next year to film him performing the greatest mask opera, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles.
Sad that his son won't be returning to China and wanting to earn forgiveness, Takata goes on his trek to find Li Jiamin, in the process encountering one difficulty after another, including language barriers, Li Jiamin's imprisonment and abandonment of his own son, broken-down tractors, and being lost in a wilderness.
If the film's plot was just improbable, much could be excused. But Zhang's direction, Takakura's acting, and the script all conspire to keep matters from getting any better.
For a man who made two of the most visually beautiful films of the last few years -- Hero and House of Flying Daggers -- here Zhang is at his languid worst. This is the kind of Zhang Yimou movie where people on roofs are trying to get cell-phone reception rather than fighting off battalions of arrows. As The Road Home proved, Zhang is capable of handling less fantastical material. But at times, Riding Alone looks like a made-for-TV movie.
Takakura is known for his stoic roles, but as Takata he plays his feelings so far beneath the surface the audience is left without clues as to what's going on internally until it's narrated, and by then there's no emotional weight behind the punch.
The film is about the red tape one man erects between himself and his love for his son. It plays out literally as Takakura encounters one hoop to jump through after another to get his precious film of the opera. Riding Alone isn't a journey into the heart of darkness but rather the heart of bureaucracy, and while it's intellectually interesting in a recap sort of way, it plays out only as exciting as, well, people talking about their emotions rather than expressing them.
Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles doesn't say with a hundred narrated sentences what Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru conveyed in one look and one song.
Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles
Opening Friday, October 27th