Thursday, March 29, 2007

Film Review #93: Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles 2005
Director: Zhang Yimou >br> Cast: Ken Takakura, Yang Zhenbo, Li Jiamin

Just released last month on DVD, this film by Chinese director Zhang Yimou is unlike the films that most American audiences know him for best. In his case, the absence of the usual channels our attention as much as what’s there. Part of the so-called “Fifth Generation” of Chinese filmmakers raised during China’s 1960s’ Cultural Revolution, Zhang wanted so much to make movies – he’d been assigned to rural labor – that he sold his own blood to buy his first camera. In Riding Alone, an older fisherman takes up his estranged son’s documentary filmmaking because the son is too ill to complete a last project about a Chinese opera singer's rendition of a particular song. The film’s title comes from that Chinese opera, which depicts a difficult journey undertaken out of loyalty.

Zhang turns his focus away from women in this tale of a remorseful father. While his son’s wife Rie courageously reaches out to him and the tourist guide Jasmine opens many doors for him, the real emotional journeys here occur for the deeply reticent Gou-ichi Takata (Ken Takakura), his embittered folklorist son, the Chinese opera singer Li Jiamin (playing himself) and Li’s abandoned little boy Yang Yang (Yang Zhenbo). Perhaps Zhang suggests he and his audiences share the uncertainty of new cinematic ground when Takata’s quest takes him so far – to remote Yunnan province – that the very road itself is still under construction.

Zhang’s previous films were steeped in Chinese identity. This one begins and ends in Japan. Zhang wrote his lead role for a popular actor known as “Japan’s Clint Eastwood,” who plays against type. No longer playing a gangster, here Takakura is a decent outsider. In a larger sense, Riding Alone plays against Chinese cinema’s persistent negative portrayals of Japan, rooted in Japanese military aggression of the 1930s and 40s. Takata’s son is a respected scholar at Tokyo University and the Chinese villagers fondly recall his curiosity about their culture despite his personal aloofness, which they generously define as “loneliness.” Riding Alone asks Chinese audiences to see Japan freshly and Western audiences to distinguish among Asian characters.

Riding Alone is also an austere contemporary parable rather than Zhang’s signature historical action-dramas. In Raise the Red Lantern (1992), Zhang cast actress Li Gong as a woman condemned to misery as the youngest wife in a 1920’s Chinese household. The highest grossing Chinese film ever (starring Jet Li), Zhang’s 2002 Hero showcased actresses Maggie Cheung and Ziyi Zhang as assassins. The latter appeared again in Zhang’s 2004 Tang Dynasty potboiler House of Flying Daggers. Zhang’s new Curse of the Golden Flower brings back Li Gong in an emperor’s palace intrigue. Such genre films have been commercially successful and Zhang’s actresses have crossed over to roles in Clean and Miami Vice as well as Memoirs of a Geisha and higher-end art-house films like Wong Kar-wai’s 2046 and In the Mood for Love.

In contrast, Riding Alone strips away this aura of sumptuous remove, confining the elaborate costumes and performance tradition to a small corner of a close-up story about modern characters who cannot communicate. Opera simply provides the potent image of the mask, universal sign of how roles at once protect and restrict social relations. Takata almost films the wrong opera singer – whereupon he learns Li Jiamin is away in prison – because one guide assumes it’s immaterial which actor is behind the mask. When Takata makes his own video to plead for admission to that prison, he covers his face with a ceremonial banner, but his tears and confession of past fault move the bureaucrats more. Takata’s son confides that folk operas were attractive because his own life was hidden behind masks. Elegantly closing the film, the opera's masked hero performs a dance as accompanying prison inmates swirl about him.

What makes Riding Alone so singular lies beyond emoting for its own sake or reciting the right words. At first Takata envies the hysterical Li Jiamin for his capacity to weep, but he eventually enacts the virtue of loyalty for his own son and Li Jiamin’s son too in quieter, more steadfast ways. Lost in the mountains with the resentful boy Yang Yang, Takata shares a humorous twitch of the nose with the little boy over smelly bathroom habits – an exchange that’s the very essence of dropping one’s proper poses. We may think such small moments change everything, but getting there was half the battle.

This review appeared in the 3/29/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a weekly column reviewing recent films that didn’t screen locally & older films of enduring worth.