After the relative disappointment of his two recent wuxia films – both Hero (Ying xiong) and House of Flying Daggers (Shi mian mai fu) strongly favour style over substance, and although visually stunning, generally leave one unsatisfied – Yimou Zhang returns to the more intimate approach that made The Road Home (Wo de fu qin mu qin) such a wonderful film. Riding Alone For Thousands Of Miles (Qian li zou dan qi) doesn’t quite scale those heights, but for fans there is much to enjoy.
Focussing almost entirely on one character, Riding Alone For Thousands Of Miles is a story of significant depth, powerfully exploring the nature of connectedness, and the meaning of family. Takada – played by Ken Takakura as a resolute, determined man, intent on redressing a past breakdown in his relationship with his son – goes on a physical journey in search of the missing link in his son’s life work, but it becomes more a journey of the soul.
There is much to admire in this quest. Zhang uses the language barriers that face a Japanese fisherman travelling in Yunnan Province in China to symbolise the barrier between him and his son – the use of local ‘interpreters’ fraught with potential for misunderstanding. His lifeline, a mobile telephone that links him to the only person with enough of both languages to help him, is often out of range, and this metaphor works very well indeed. From his attempts to communicate even the most basic of thoughts, he learns that one must always keep trying, keep looking for a way to get through.
Zhang does not forget his unique visual style completely, although he certainly tones down the vibrant colours of Hero and House of Flying Daggers – here he favours letting the incredible landscape of the region speak for itself. With earthy reds, and rocks and mountains covered in snow, Zhang shows us some amazing country; an environment that is both beautiful and harsh. Like the use of barriers to communication, the terrain is used to emphasise the journey Takada is on – the Japanese ocean fisherman in the unrelenting Chinese mountains.
Zhang never once oversteps or allows flashy sentiment to creep in; his direction is as understated as the performance of Takakura. Both excel, allowing a subtle story to develop, of relationships and love in spite of division. Takakura, whose role was written for him by Zhang, seems to be Takada, and one can’t help but feel sorry for this man who is trying so hard against all his own history to be something he isn’t. Takakura conveys all of this bewilderment, frustration and emotion with few words, relying predominantly on expression and body language, in a performance of significant skill.
If you found the flashy visuals and action of the last two films of Yimou Zhang to your liking, Riding Alone For Thousands Of Miles may not be your cup of tea. If you favour the quiet intimate struggle over civil war, however, there is much to be enjoyed here.Rating: