Ken Takakura as Gou-ichi Takata
Shinobu Terajima as Rie Takata
Kiichi Nakai as Kenichi Takata
Li Jiamin as Li Jiamin
Qui Lin as Lingo
Jiang Wen as Jasmine
Li Li Bin as Director
Yang Zhenbo as Yang Yang
Directed by Zhang Yimou
With a slow and deliberate pace, master filmmaker Zhang Yimou perfectly blends emotional real life drama and humorous charm to create another wondrous masterpiece that greatly enhances an already impressive filmography.
An elderly Japanese fisherman (Ken Takakura) travels to China to film a famous singer performing a classic opera for his dying son Kenichi, in hopes that it will help them reconnect. Instead, he’s sent on a wild goose chase across the country to reunite the imprisoned singer with his own estranged son, which becomes almost as important as his original mission.
After making two relatively costly period epics in a row, China’s master filmmaker Zhang Yimou tones things down for a character drama that’s more like his pre-”Hero” films, “Happy Times” and “The Road Home.” It’s a great reminder that he’s able to make movies that are stirring and emotionally satisfying without adding flashy martial arts to keep them interesting.
Fans of Master Zhang’s martial arts films may immediately presume that watching a two-hour movie about an elderly Japanese fisherman traveling across China would be a tedious affair. Au contraire, there’s something sublimely appealing about Ken Takakura, Japan’s answer to Clint Eastwood, who holds the camera’s gaze for the course of Gouichi Takata’s journey to reconnect with his estranged son. Due to his anti-social nature and the difference in cultures, Takata rarely speaks, giving the movie a vibe that often mirrors the work of Zhang’s Korean peer Kim Ki-Duk in his attempts at telling a story with as few words as possible.
Things pick up as Takata gets to the Chinese opera company, only to learn that the singer he came to film was recently jailed, forcing Takata to go through the proper authorities to visit the singer in prison. Once they agree, Takata discovers that the singer is too distraught to perform, because his recently discovered illegitimate son is being raised by the village after the death of his mother. Much to the consternation of Takata’s guide and interpreter, he offers to reunite the man with his son, taking the long journey to the village where he has to deal with even more red tape and tougher language barriers. Eventually, the village’s board of directors agrees to let Takata take the boy to meet his father, but on the way, the young boy runs off, and Takata ends up getting lost in the nearby cliffs with the boy, forcing them to bond as they try to survive.
Besides being Zhang Yimou’s return to the modern world and reality, “Riding Alone ” might also be seen as his attempt at creating a classic family film; it’s certainly the type of story that can be enjoyed by a wide variety of genders and ages, though Western family films rarely have the quality or depth of storytelling that Zhang instills in this movie. Zhang uses Takata’s hassles to subtly comment on the politics and the bureaucratic incompetence of mainland China, while also capturing the natural beauty of the countryside to create a dichotomy toTakata’s journey that’s quite stirring.
Aspects of the story might make it seem like straight drama, but there’s a great deal of humor inherent in the way Takata has to deal with all sorts of red tape and the language barrier. Takata’s Chinese guides try to talk him out of what they consider a fool’s folly, but Takata is extremely stubborn, something that may have played a part in him losing touch with his son in the first place. When Takata’s young interpreter Jasmine quits in frustration with his stubbornness, he ends up with his dimwitted guide Lingo as a translator, though he doesn’t speak as much Japanese as he claims. Takata ends up having to constantly call Jasmine to straighten out situations made worse by Lingo’s incompetence, creating a strange relationship that adds to the film’s charm. The differences in culture and language play an even bigger part when Takata is stranded with the young Chinese boy, and the subtitles are removed to make the viewer feel like they’re in the same boat as the two of them.
Ken Takakura does a great job creating a crotchety character that one can immediately empathize with, particularly with his frustrations about the problem that arise while trying to meet a looming deadline to reconnect with his dying son. The actors playing Takata’s Chinese guides, Jasmine and Lingo, create a seamless rapport that makes it seem as if you’re watching a documentary, while also providing much needed humor. On the other hand, the actress playing Takata’s daughter-in-law Rie isn’t quite as convincing, especially in the dramatic scenes where her crying seems forced and fake.
After a while, the quest is no longer about Takata reconnecting with his son, as much as it is about him doing something good for this poor imprisoned singer. Few people will be disappointed by the emotional conclusion to the story, as it leaves very few dry eyes in the house.
The Bottom Line:
Zhang Yimou revisits a part of himself that was tabled once he started making martial arts films with “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers,” but it’s an emotional return that acts as a palate cleanser before his next bit period epic “Curse of the Golden Flower,” out later this year. It’s another strong example of his abilities as a master filmmaker and storyteller even when working in a realistic setting without all the flash of colorful period costumes and large set pieces.