Friday, September 22, 2006
Zhang Yimou has proven to be a tough survivor of both life and a fluctuating film industry. After the Cultural Revolution in China in 1966, Zhang worked as a farm hand and laborer as part of a nationwide movement to have China's urban youth educated by peasants. But Zhang eventually maneuvered his way into the Beijing Film Academy when it reopened in 1978, even though at twenty-seven he was considered rather old to be entering.Red Sorghum
tapped into his experiences working in the countryside and won international acclaim, But then he discovered that films displaying a kind of Asian exotica were popular abroad with art house audiences in America and Europe, so he delivered films such asRaise the Red Lantern
. Then he saw a new generation of young filmmakers finding homegrown success with contemporary urban dramas. So Zhang quickly adapted to deliverThe Story of Qiu Gin Not One Less
. More recently, he tapped into the popularity of Asian action withHero
andHouse of Flying Daggers
. He returns to the more modern realistic vein of some earlier films with his latest work,Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles
The film takes its title from a Chinese mask opera that becomes something of an obsession for the main character, Gouichi Takata (well played by Ken Takakura whose stiff formality eventually gives way to tenderness). Takata has isolated himself from his family by moving to a remote fishing village on the coast of Japan. Takata reluctantly goes to Tokyo to visit his ailing son Kenichi at the hospital. But Kenichi refuses to see his father. Takata's daughter Rie (Shinoba Terajima) apologizes but begs her father to watch a video that Kenichi had shot in China and was working on. In the video he interviews a singer who describes an opera about the three kingdoms. The performer urges Kenichi to come back in a year, to record a performance of it. But Kenichi now has terminal cancer and is unable to leave the hospital. Takata, who has been estranged from his son since his wife died years ago, decides that he will make the trip to China's Yunnan province to complete his son's work and to hopefully gain some connection to his son. So begins his odyssey to find the singer, who is now in prison, and to record the opera. Takata begins the journey because he thinks filming the opera is an obsession of his son's but through the course of the film, the obsession becomes his own in surprising ways.
Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles is a meticulously crafted film in which nothing is ever forced or overstated. There's a grace and subtlety that pervades the film and quietly impresses. This is a film of great sadness but not in the maudlin, tearjerky ways of such Hollywood fare as Terms of Endearment . This is a film where the heartbreak and sorrow creep up on you with surprising power. Zhang elegantly weaves his tale to incorporate not just one father and son relationship but two, and the two stories dovetail together with unexpected tenderness.
Zhang's past films were often interpreted as political allegories critical of China, prompting the government to ban or restrict access to some of them. Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles seems less critical of the government and more simply observant of contemporary Chinese life in all its diversity. There are wonderful scenes in a village where Takata is warmly greatly like a dignitary and the entire village comes out for a meal on the main street with tables lined up from one end of the village to the other. And when Takata needs to use his cell phone, the entire town committee leads him to a rooftop to get better reception. Zhang and cinematographer Zhao Xioading also dazzle us with the stunning, rocky structures of the village contrasted with the modern structure of the prison. And at the prison, the warden proudly stages the opera for Takata and turns on the spinning disco ball lights for the performance. We get an intimate insight into China today through the eyes of the Japanese Takata, who feels very aware of his role as an outsider looking in.
Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles (in Mandarin and Japanese with English subtitles and is rated PG) is further proof of Zhang's cinematic skills. It also offers for a change a central male figure going through an emotional upheaval. Until now most of Zhang's films have focused on the emotions of women, most notably women played by Gong Li.
Companion viewing: Red Sorghum, Not One Less, House of Flying Daggers