Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles (in Mandarin and Japanese with English subtitles) is Zhang Yimou's lyrical tale of an old man's journey, more in the vein of Not One Less rather than his operatic martial arts fantasy House of Flying Daggers.
This quiet tale is rather simple and understated, somewhat hackneyed and ponderous, but affecting because of the work Yimou gets from veteran Japanese actor Ken Takakura, who played opposite Michael Douglas in Ridley Scott's 1989 drama, Black Rain.
The silently charismatic Takakura admirably fills the role of aging Gou-ichi Takata who lives in a quiet fishing village in northwest Japan. A telephone call from daughter-in-law Rie (Shinobu Terajima) has him taking the bullet train to Tokyo. Takata's estranged son, Ken-ichi (Kiichi Nakai) has cancer of the liver, more than severe stomach pain, and hasn't been asking for his father as Rie described to him.
Yimou's elegantly mounted picture becomes an investigation into how people interact, and the primary setting becomes the rural Yunnan province of southern China. It's in a way about a sense of family that Takata desires; the distance from his son comes the emotional shell he's in that has him crushed.
The screenplay by Zou Jingzhi from a story collaborated on by Yimou has Takata on a sojourn with a videocamera after watching how Ken-ichi had been studying the rich tradition of Chinese folk drama. The film's title is a legendary song from a literary classic 'Romance of the Three Kingdoms' that a famous actor, Li Jiamin was to perform for Ken-ichi, until he fell ill. Now, with his son unable to return on a promise for him, Takata wants to film the performance knowing time is running out for Ken-ichi.
The gracefulness in Takakura's portrait reflects a stoic man looking to narrow the gap between Ken-ichi and himself. The scenic Yunnan province becomes pristine and painterly under Yimou's guidance with a still-life quality which gradually underlines an intimacy of filial love.
In expressing subtle feelings to explore simple relationships between real people and unconditional love, Yimou has surrounded Takakura (who's been on screen for over 40 years) largely with untrained actors. This fresh perspective for his mournful, taciturn character works best in scenes with Yang Zhenbo as stubborn, sweet runaway Yang Yang and Li Jiamin as that problematic opera singer who figures in the heartfelt conclusion.
The symbolism from China in its heartland is staged measuredly in episodic fashion that ultimately may be overly sentimentalized. But one feels well-traveled in some of the idiosyncracies and bureaucracy Takata endures, especially through the interpretation to the strangers who color his journey. Riding Alone eventually evokes memories of The King of Masks even before the the entrancing shows. While not as efficient or poignant, For Thousands of Miles still exudes might in its respectfulness for what is more important than Chinese culture exportation.