Although he has been estranged from his son for 10 years, when he hears about his Ken-ichi's stomach illness Mr. Takata (Ken Takakura) travels to Tokyo to visit him in hospital. Ken-ichi’s wife’s hope for a reconciliation between father and son are dashed however, as the rift between them is too deep and Ken-ichi refuses to see his father. The wife however, gives Mr. Takata a tape of Ken-ichi’s work, a documentary he is working on as an expert in Oriental folk arts at the University of Tokyo.
Finding out that his son is suffering from terminal cancer of the liver, Mr. Takata decides to make a trip to a remote village in China to complete a recording of a performance of the Chinese Folk Opera ‘Riding Alone For Thousands Of Miles’, the purest of all mask operas according to the man interviewed on the tape, that Ken-ichi was unable to get him to perform on his visit there.
Arriving in the little village of Lijiang in the Yunna Province, Mr.Takahata finds that the opera singer Li has since been imprisoned and is serving a three year sentence for stabbing a man during a drunken brawl. Determined to carry out his mission in a distant foreign land, Mr. Takata approaches officials in the Bureau of Justice and the Office of Foreign Affairs to see if he can get permission to film Li performing the opera in prison – an almost impossible task for an outsider, particularly one who is Japanese and doesn’t have an interpreter.
On the surface, Riding Alone For Thousands of Miles resembles a few of the simpler films of Chinese peasant life Zhang Yimou made before his international successes with the stunning martial arts films Hero And House Of Flying Daggers. Most obviously, it seems like a reverse telling of The Road Home, where a son takes a journey back to the little country village he was born in and in doing so learns much that he did not know about his dead father. Mr. Takata’s determined mission to cut through the complex and capricious decision-making machinery of Chinese bureaucracy also recalls similar quests in The Story of Qiu Ju and Not One Less and, as such, Riding Alone For Thousand of Miles is again sympathetic and illuminating in its examination of Chinese society, its people, their nature, their culture, their political make-up, their character and their relationship with their environment. This final aspect, more than ever, is borne out in some astonishingly beautiful photography of the mountains, villages and bizarre broken rock features of the Yunnan Province.
On its own, these aspects would make a strikingly beautiful and simple film, as they have done in past Zhang Yimou films, but here in Riding Alone For Thousands of Miles, he adds subtle layers of depth and meaning to Mr Takata’s mission. What would be a sentimental story in the hands of a lesser director is handled with extreme delicacy, sensitivity and dignity here by Zhang Yimou, who doesn’t use the situation to milk an emotional reaction from the viewer. Undertaking a task for the opera singer Li in prison, and venturing further into the remote regions of China without a proper interpreter is representative of Mr. Takata’s journey to reopen the lines of communication that have broken down between himself and his own son. All his actions, through his long journey, through the single-minded determination to break down the barriers of red tape, to the photographs he takes of the young boy Yang Yang, are contiguous and parallel actions that deepen and inform the relationship between Mr. Takata and his son Ken-ichi, without us ever seeing them together on the screen.
The whole film is thus about communication about finding ways to relate our emotions and feelings to other people, through phone calls (there is symbolism in Mr Takata’s striving with a group of villagers to find the high ground in Stony Village to get a mobile phone connection), through photographs, through actions, and of course through the use of the Chinese opera ‘Riding Alone For Thousands of Miles’. Most significantly in this respect is the use of interpreters that is most prominent throughout the film, to bridge the gap not only between languages but the cultural differences that exist between people of very different ways of living and thinking. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, the film seems to say, if we all had our own individual interpreters to communicate the emotions we feel in a way that makes a meaningful connection to another person?
While the new Zhang Yimou film hasn’t yet made it across to the West yet, there are a couple of Asian editions of Riding Alone For Thousands of Miles available. The edition reviewed here is the mainland China edition from Zoke Culture, which is single-layer, non-anamorphic and quite basic, but cheap (about £4.00), and a more than acceptable way to view the film. The disc is in PAL format and has no region coding. An anamorphic edition with DTS sound is also available, also cheaply here.
The picture quality is just about as good as you could expect from a non-anamorphic transfer on a single-layer disc, which is to say it isn’t bad at all. The colours are glorious, perfectly capturing the colour schemes used throughout the film, capturing Yimou’s typical use of spot reds, which have perfect tone and saturation. The transfer even copes well with some day for night sequences, with good brightness and contrast balance, allowing blacks to have a fair amount of shadow detail. Sharpness is excellent and stability is fair – some minor compression blocking can occasionally be seen flickering in backgrounds. There are a few minor white flecks and dustspots, but none of this presents any major problems. There is one large problem with a couple of frames breaking up in a whiteout, but this is a one-off. Overall, this is a more than acceptable and perfectly serviceable transfer of the film, and in some places – particularly with the spot-on colour schemes capturing the tones of the Chinese landscapes – even quite impressive.
The DVD comes with a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix of the original Japanese/Mandarin soundtrack. Dialogue is perfectly clear and audible, the mixing discreet, appropriate and effective – though a little echoing on occasions.
Optional English subtitles are provided in a small white font. They are placed outside the 1.85:1 frame, which means that the image cannot be zoomed to 16:9 without cutting them off. The translation is fine, with no errors in grammar or spelling.
There are no extra features on the disc apart from a selection of trailers for other releases. Curiously, the trailer for Chen Kaige’s ludicrous Killing Me Softly seems to be suffering from some conversion standards problem making the film seem jerky and speeded up and even more silly than it already is. I like to think Zhang Yimou has a wicked sense of humour and perhaps asked for it to be included this way.
Showing no trace of the melodrama blown out of all proportion that Zhang Yimou was permitted to indulge in House Of Flying Daggers, here the director returns to familiar ground in a deceptively simple, small-scale film, showing a sensitivity and artistry on a par with his very best films (Raise The Red Lantern, The Story of Qiu Ju). Perhaps he will take some of that delicacy and lightness of touch to his next blockbuster, The City of Golden Armour (and re-united with Gong Li, there is every reason to hope so), which if it has even a fraction of the brilliance in evidence here, should be quite something. This mainland Chinese DVD edition of Riding Alone For Thousands Of Miles is pretty basic and shows a number of flaws, but it’s a good cheap edition and a fine way to see Zhang Yimou making the kind of films he does best.