Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles
The Chinese director Zhang Yimou is - I should say has been - one of the great filmmakers of our age. His early films "Red Sorghum," Ju Dou," and a few others, broke the mold of politically correct Maoist work and dealt with powerful questions of life, emotions, and even justice. Recently, though, Zhang has become a favorite of the present regime, alternating shallow stories about small heroisms by small people ("Not One Less" and "The Road Home") with shallow stories about epic fighters ("Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers"). His recent film is called "Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles," which is both the title of the film and the title of a Chinese folk opera that serves to drive the story.
But the film starts in Japan, with a middle-aged fisherman, Gou-ichi Takata - played by the well-known film star Ken Takakura - standing at the edge of the sea, gazing out at the water and the gulls. He has just heard from his daughter-in-law in Tokyo that his son, Ken-ichi, is in the hospital. The two have been estranged for years, and when the father goes to visit him he's turned away bitterly. Ken-ichi's wife tells him that his son has always loved Chinese folk opera, and last year wanted to make a documentary about one, called "Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles," that he saw in a small mountain village in Kunming province, starring a famous singer, Li Jiamin. Mr. Takata determines to go to the village, videotape the opera with Li Jiamin in it, and bring the tape back to the hospital for his son to see. The film tells us the story of his journey.
And of course the journey doesn't go as planned. First, it seems that Mr. Li, the star, is in prison for his role in a deadly fight. But when Mr. Takata gets permission to visit him in prison, Mr. Li won't sing because he misses his own son, an eight-year-old named Yang Yang. So Mr. Takata goes to the village where the boy is being raised - by the whole community, as it happens - to bring him to his father for a visit.
"Riding Alone" veers back and forth from comedy to tragedy, but never quite allows itself to embrace either one; instead, Zhang seems to be making a folk opera of his own, with all of its conflicting and contradictory elements, rather than committing the film to a point of view. So we sit and watch the story, as we would sit and watch a folk opera, rather than being either swept up and exalted or crushed and defeated. Either one would have made for a better, more insightful, more emotionally involved film than "Riding Alone," the one that Zhang actually made.