Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles

| September 10, 2006

An elderly Japanese fisherman, Takata, learns that his adult son is dying of cancer, a son that he has neither seen nor spoken to in ten years. His daughter-in-law, Rie, hoping for reconciliation, encourages Takata to make a visit to the hospital. Yet once there his son, Ken-ichi, refuses to see him. Unable to bring these two men together, Rie then gives Takata a tape that Ken-ichi recorded. From it, Takata realizes that his son has an intense passion for Chinese folk opera, and that he had planned a trip to China to film the famed singer Li Jiamin as he performs “Riding Alone for Thousand of Miles.” Knowing that his son will never be able to make this trip, Takata decides to travel to China to film the performance for him. Once there, however, he encounters obstacle after obstacle that prevent him from accomplishing his task.
Made by Zhang Yimou, the man who directed both Raise the Red Lantern and House of Flying Daggers, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles is another remarkable film by this talented director, yet not quite at the caliber of his previous accomplishments. Like its predecessors, Riding Alone is visually stunning. Yimou uses well the natural beauty of rural China as the backdrop for his story, giving the audience access to the gorgeous scenery of this vast and changeable country. And as always, Yimou extracts amazing performances from all his actors. In particular, Takakura Ken as Takata does a wonderful job of conveying the inner turmoil of a man unable to verbally express the grief he feels for not only his son’s life, but also the loss of their relationship.
In the end, however, the unfolding of the story feels a bit contrived. Despite the many obstacles that Takata faces, never did I think that he would not accomplish his task. Moreover, the idea that he would be able to finally reconcile with his son also seemed like a foregone conclusion. The story itself held no real tension. For sure, just observing the characters and the spectacular scenery made the experience worthwhile, but that was about it. I knew how the story would end five minutes into the movie. And because of that, I can’t say that I was as invested in what would happen to these characters, even Mr. Takata, as I should have been.
That said, Riding Alone is still worth the two hours for anyone who is a Yimou fan. I will give you fair warning, however, if you’re not used to his work or perhaps not a huge foreign film fan: the pacing is extremely slow by American standards. If you’re more the Pirates of the Caribbean type of filmgoer, you just might be squirming in your seats before Takata even leaves Japan. Not to say, though, that this film isn’t worth the admission price. Yimou is truly a master filmmaker, and saying that this film is a little sub par should be kept within context. It’s like saying that it wasn’t a great Spielberg movie or Scorsese film–they still rank far and away above most of the flicks out there. Even when they’re bad, they’re still pretty good. For Riding Alone in particular, the scenery’s very pretty, the acting’s very good.

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