A mid-2000s departure from his wuxia epics, Zhang’s largely restrained work about an aged Japanese father travelling to China to film a traditional mask opera for his estranged dying son ultimately teeters towards the emotionalism of the director’s earlier melodramas.
Cast: Ken Takakura, Kiichi Nakai, Shinobu Terajima
Plot: A withdrawn Japanese father attempts to repair a relationship with his dying son by journeying to southeast China to film a village opera singer whom his son admires.
Subject Matter: Moderate – Fathers and Sons; Communication
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
One of the few Zhang Yimou films that I have yet to see, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles has one of the most poetic titles of the master filmmaker’s oeuvre, capturing the loneliness and isolation of the main character, an aged Japanese father who travels to China to film a traditional mask opera for his estranged dying son.
An outsider in a foreign land, Takata’s (Ken Takakura in a restrained but deeply affecting performance) journey leads him to contemplate his regrets as a father, while at the same time, connecting with a young Chinese boy from a village whose father is serving time in prison.
It is easy to say that Riding is a tale about fathers and sons, but it is also about filming experiences, memories and culture.
“He’s come a long way to see you.”
Despite also adopting restrain in his filmmaking, Zhang ultimately succumbs to the emotionalism that characterised his earlier melodramas, though Riding just about avoids the overwrought sentimentalism that marked the likes of, say, The Road Home (1999) and Under the Hawthorn Tree (2010).
Communication and translation are also prominent themes in Riding—in fact, I propose that it is the main driving force for its narrative and characters.
Unable to be understood or to understand another without good translation (a motif that comically recurs), this debilitating experience is very much an extension of Takata’s inability to communicate with his son—even in the language they know.
Yet Zhang’s bittersweet film suggests that communication isn’t the end goal—it’s not so much about being understood as to have empathised.