Of director Zhang Yimou’s four most recent films, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles is the only one that hasn’t received a widespread theatrical release in the US. Really, it hasn’t developed any buzz at all; it’s been lumped into the general category of well-intentioned foreign movies destined to be seen by the small few who add it to their Netflix queue. Is it any coincidence that the three other films – Hero, House of Flying Daggers, and Curse of the Golden Flower – are all big budget, historical epics with plenty of elaborately choreographed martial arts, larger-than-life characters, and Shakespearean romantic entanglements?
In other words, I was ready to accuse the American public of only being interested in foreign films when they meet our narrow criteria of what such films should aspire to. And yet, the more I think about it, I’m not sure the marginalization of Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles is because it’s a Chinese film. This is the sort of low-key, intensely personal story that Hollywood, and even much of the indie market, has given up on making, lately. What’s most affecting about this story of estranged fathers and sons is its refusal to turn up the melodrama or wrap everything up in a neat, emotionally cathartic ending. As such, I can’t really imagine an English-language version with Robert De Niro as the father and Jake Gyllenhaal as his bitter son.
Yimou reportedly wanted to make the film in order to work with Ken Takakura, a prolific Japanese actor who’s been working since the ‘50s. He’s mostly known for playing rough guys and gangsters, and has earned the title, “the Clint Eastwood of Japan” (for better or worse, he’s also probably best known to Americans for his role in the Tom Selleck comedy Mr. Baseball). Takakura’s performance in Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles is crucial because of the tenderness and subtlety that he brings to the role. There’s never an attempt to strain for effect, and the camera likes to linger on his stony face as he takes in the difficulties that keep mounting on his own personal quest. The movie finds just the right balance for these frustrations: it’s funny to watch Takakura stubbornly override everyone’s demands that he be more realistic and simply go home to Japan, but beneath his impassive face we can see that his persistence is fueled by the fear that his heart will break if he doesn’t accomplish his task.
Takakura plays Kouichi Takata, a simple fisherman who has long been estranged from his son Kenichi, a documentary filmmaker living in Tokyo. When the son is diagnosed with terminal cancer, Kouichi goes to visit him in the hospital, only to be told by Kenichi’s wife that he can’t bear to see him. Desperate to find some way of connecting with his son, Kouichi decides to film a performance of a Chinese folk opera for a half-finished documentary.
Unfortunately, everywhere Kouichi, goes unexpected problems arise. He flies out to China and is met with a translator whose Japanese is so poor, he seems only a small step up from consulting a pocket dictionary. Even worse, the opera singer who is needed to perform the opera has been arrested for assault, and the Chinese authorities are wary of giving anyone, much less a foreigner, access to a prison just to film a documentary. And even the opera singer Li Jiamin has his own set of problems: he’s an emotional wreck since being sent to prison because he’s been unable to see his toddler son.
The final leg of Takakura’s journey involves finding Li’s son, Yang Yang in order to bring him to the prison and introduce him to the father he never knew. In a sense, the movie’s theme has come full circle: Kouichi befriends Yang Yang and realizes that in order to repair his relationship with his own son, he must reunite another father-son pair.
And this is the reason why I think Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles is so fundamentally different from most American movies, even our character pieces: the film’s message can’t really be summed up in a tidy sentiment like “discovering the importance of family” or “learning the importance and frailty of life”. Without giving too much away, we don’t see either father-son pair talk face-to-face and reconcile. Kouichi’s son is never even seen, although we do hear his voice, and the reasons why the two became estranged in the first place are left deliberately vague (it’s suggested that it might be due to Kenichi’s closely-guarded, introspective nature more than anything else).
Instead, the movie gently suggests that our actions and obsessions have only as much importance as we give them. Why does Kouichi fly out China and do everything he can to film an obscure actor? At first he believes it’s crucial to Kenichi’s documentary, only to later learn that his son was only humoring Li Jiamin. Likewise, Kouichi hopes that by retracing his son’s footsteps he’ll learn more about him, but the translators he frequently work with will only tell Kouichi that his son preferred his solitude to human interaction. And yet Kouichi’s quest is important because it proves to his son that he cares about him. The end result – the filming of the folk opera – is almost meaningless compared to the simple sense of satisfaction Kouichi has taken away from his journey.
The DVD of Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles contains only a making-of documentary as its sole special feature, and in ironic contrast to the film itself, it feels like something completely out of Hollywood: an 18-minute PR piece that uses every opportunity to remind the viewer what a talented filmmaker Zhang Yimou is, and how excited and honored everyone was to work with him. Don’t get me wrong, Zhang Yimou’s career as a director has produced a number of wonderful, diverse movies, but it’s amusing that this piece sounds exactly like every other behind-the-scenes extra I’ve ever seen in terms of its endless praise. Anyone who watches it in order to find out more about the emotional textures that drew Yimou to want to tell this story in the first place are going to be disappointed. Maybe the Chinese film industry and Hollywood aren’t so different, after all.