Saturday, February 03, 2007


Masking your true feelings

By Edward Copeland
When I first heard about Zhang Yimou's Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, it was hard to suppress my excitement. The Chinese filmmaker has long been one of my favorite directors and I'd been disappointed by his recent turn toward martial arts epics and away from the personal, human stories that made me fall for his work in the first place.

I didn't care for Hero though I liked House of Flying Daggers (Curse of the Golden Flower slipped in and out of town too fast for me to see it), but they were all letdowns from the man who made such masterful and moving films as Raise the Red Lantern, To Live, Ju Dou and The Story of Qiu Ju. The descriptions of Riding Alone held the promise that Yimou was going back to the types of films he does best.

Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles stars Japanese actor Ken Takakura, the best thing about some late '80s/early '90s American stinkers such as Tom Selleck's Mr. Baseball and Michael Douglas' Black Rain, as Gou-ichi Takata, a man estranged for some unexplained reason from his grown son Ken-ichi.

Takata wants to re-establish the bond with his son when he learns from his daughter Rie (Shinobu Terajima) that Ken-ichi has terminal cancer. The ailing Ken-ichi still isn't interested in seeing his father, so Gou-ichi decides to fulfill one of Ken-ichi's dreams — filming the Chinese mask opera that gives the film its title. Despite his daughter's insistence that the trip is unnecessary and Ken-ichi's health is too fragile for his father to be potentially out of touch, Gou-ichi travels to China to find the man whom his son thought to be the greatest interpreter of the mask opera.

Dependent on interpreters, Gou-ichi soon finds that the man he seeks is in prison and won't be released for several years. He tries to arrange for a performance that takes place in the prison only to discover the man has his own paternal problems — he longs to meet the son he's never met (Yang Zhenbo), transforming Gou-ichi's original mission for his own father-son reunion into another as he tracks down the young boy in hopes of taking him to meet his father for the first time.

While the film certainly is touching at times and Takakura gives a great, stoic performance as Gou-ichi, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles doesn't seem to build toward anything. Once the scenes between Gou-ichi and the young Yang Yang occur, they bear an uncomfortable similarity to too many other films about a sudden relationship between an adult and a needy child.

On the other hand, it's great to see Zhang Yimou back on more familiar terrain. I still want to see Curse of the Golden Flower, if only to see the director reunite with his former muse, the great Gong Li, but I for one would be happy if he went back to stories like this that keep their feet on the ground in all senses of the words.

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I missed Riding Alone when it came in and out of Miami Beach. I did see Curse yesterday, dubbed in Thai with English and Chinese subtitles. Great costumes and sets, but otherwise a disappointment.
Regarding Takakura Ken, have you seen The Yakuza? About thirty years ago, Paul Schrader introduced a couple of Japanese films that he starred in at MoMA.
I have not seen The Yakuza. The two awful U.S. ones were my only previous experiences with him.
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