Director Zhang Yimou ("Hero," "House of Flying Daggers") returns to his art-house roots with this quiet and contemplative story about fathers and sons. But it's hard to tell who's the star of "Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles"--Japanese action hero Takakura Ken, cast against type, or the remote Chinese province of Yunnan, which is thought to have been the inspiration for the Shangri-La of James Hilton's Lost Horizon. Both have an understated but commanding presence.
Takakura ("The Yakuza") plays Takata Gou-ichi, an elderly Japanese fisherman who is estranged from his son. Even when daughter-in-law Rie (Terajima Shinobu) phones to tell him his son is in the hospital, seriously ill, and Takata takes a bullet train to Tokyo, Ken-ichi refuses to see him.
Zhang makes the first of many interesting decisions here, opting to keep Ken-ichi totally off-stage. We never see him, and only hear the same mumbled tones that Takata hears as he waits in the hallway, just as we are never led to suspect what emotion(s) Takata is experiencing as we watch his face: Disappointment? Fear? Anger? Shame? Regret? Embarrassment? Confusion?
Because Zhang chooses an objective point of view, we can only study the old man's face (Takakura was 75 when he made this film) and speculate. But we feel the weight of his situation right from the start, and that perspective (and metaphoric burden) is not lessened one bit during the course of the film. It's partly what gives "Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles" its meek intensity. The other thing that contributes to that overall feel and tone is the location filming in Lijiang, Yunnan. The village itself looks ageless as Takata, a land that time forgot.
After Ken-ichi refuses to see his father, Rie gives Takata a videotape of a television show featuring clips that Ken-ichi filmed in Yunnan of Chinese folk mask operas. She intended it as a way for Takata to get to know his son, who has been distant for many years. But when he watches the film, what strikes him is the final segment, which shows a Chinese folk performer telling Ken-ichi that he is the only one who can perform the greatest of Chinese folk mask operas, "Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles," the story of Lord Guan. Ken-ichi begs for just a sample, but is told that he must come back next year.
Of course, he cannot. And it strikes Takata that the only thing he can do for his son in the hospital, given that he will not see him, is to do what he cannot: go back to Yunnan and film this actor, Li Jiamin, performing the opera.
Zhang chooses not to go too deeply into the back stories of the characters, preferring to only hint at the conditions of estrangement. That adds to the simple power of this film, as the audience focuses on the here and now and uses it to speculate on the before . . . and after. And the heart of this story is irony.
It's more than ironic that Takata has to leave his son to grow close to him. It's paradoxical, and Zhang flirts with more irony and paradox throughout this narratively simple but thematically complex tale. When Takata arrives in Yunnan and receives a phone call from Rie telling him his son has terminal cancer, he proceeds undeterred with his plan to film. Nothing can stop him--not uncooperative translators, not bureaucratic red-tape, not language barriers, and not an imprisoned and uncooperative Li Jiamin (who plays himself). Whatever obstacle he faces, Takata is determined to overcome. The turning point comes when Li Jiamin can't sing because he is too sad, having never seen his son. At first, Takata tries to bring the boy to the opera singer so he can get his film. But as we see Takata turning away from his own purposes, we see him as well growing symbolically closer to this surrogate son, Yang Yang (Yang Zhenbo).
Location filming makes us feel as if we're journeying right alongside Takata, and the landscape of Yunnan province looks almost otherworldly at times. Small mountains that look like stalagmites sprout from the earth, and the village looks as if it could have been filmed in 1805 instead of 2005. It feels rare to see, as if it were too private to be seen in public. That's the way Takakura's performance feels, too. "Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles" is a powerful piece of storytelling that may serve up an easy metaphor, but a complicated range of possible interpretations.
Mastered in High Definition, "Riding Alone" is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, with good color saturation and awfully good sharpness for a standard DVD. There's the slightest bit of grain, but nothing that detracts from our enjoyment.
The main language is Chinese Dolby Digital 5.1, with Portuguese 5.1 and French 2.0 Surround options and subtitles in English (CC), French, Spanish, and Portuguese. The audio quality matches the video-solid, if unspectacular.
There is only a single, brief making-of featurette, which is pretty standard and mostly serves to answer our questions about the filming process. It was filmed, on location, and real Chinese from Yunnan were filmed.
As a character-driven drama, this quest story is both unusual and familiar. But paradox seems to be at the core of Zhang Yimou's film, and so it feels quite natural. So does the rest of "Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles," an organic study of how fathers and sons misconnect . . . and reconnect.