Back to the DVD bargain bin again for another Chinese film not released theatrically in the UK. This time it’s Zhang Yimou’s 2005 film made between House of Flying Daggers and The Curse of the Golden Flower. Ironically, I watched this low-key film just a few days before Zhang Yimou stunned an enormous TV audience with his Olympic Games opening ceremony.
My take on Zhang Yimou is that he has proved to be adept at three different kinds of directorial activity: the expressionist melodrama (e.g. the ‘Red’ trilogy, including Raise the Red Lantern, the action spectacular and the neo-realist drama. Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles falls into the third category. The film is built around the weighty star persona of the Japanese star Takakura Ken, often referred to as the ‘Clint Eastwood’ of Japanese Cinema. All the Chinese characters in the film are played by non-professional actors, as in Zhang’s earlier Not One Less (1999). Takakura Ken plays Mr. Takata, a Japanese man in his seventies living quietly in a fishing village and long estranged from his only son, Kenichi. When the son is hospitalised in Tokyo, his wife contacts the old man, who learns that his son’s wish is to return to China to film a folk opera ‘Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles’ in the Western Chinese village where he has spent several years of research. The father, realising that the son is seriously ill and that he wants to do something to bring about a reconciliation, determines to go to China and film the opera himself, despite being unable to speak the language.
The trip is long and complicated and Mr Takata relies heavily on his translator Jasmine. A number of obstacles are thrown up, not least the temporary replacement of Jasmine by a local guide with only rudimentary Japanese. In the final part of the film, Mr Takata builds a relationship with a small boy who is himself the son of a father he hasn’t ever met (the man who is supposed to perform the central role in the opera).
The film runs a number of risks, not least that it will become overly sentimental and that it will lead to a feelgood ending – the kind of resolution often expected of a Hollywood film featuring a revered old actor and a ‘cute’ child. But this isn’t a Hollywood film and though there is an emotional charge to the narrative, Takakura Ken and Zhang Yimou are too highly skilled to mess it up. They both work exceptionally well with the non-professional cast. Perhaps the Eastwood comparison is apt. Takakura Ken does very little, but has enormous presence, matched only by the jaw-droppingly beautiful cinematography in the mountains. The ending of the film is not contrived and audiences prepared to think about the narrative as well as engage with the emotion should find it very rewarding.
The American reviews of the film are mixed. Some recognise its qualities and praise it highly, others find it ‘lightweight’. There are even some attempts to see the film as ‘propaganda’ for Chinese officialdom and the ‘happy lives’ of the village folk. It is of course a matter of taste, but I would argue that the film sits easily in the neo-realist tradition. The story is not contrived, the behaviour of characters makes sense in the situation and we learn something about human relationships – what’s not to like?
From a wider perspective, the film does begin to explore the Sino-Japanese relationship at a time when there has been some tension over the representation of the war of 1937-45. Zhang himself was responsible for the popular film Red Sorghum in which the brutality of the Japanese offensive was portrayed. In Riding Alone, we see the icon of urban Japanese action films taken to the rural Chinese hinterland and the attempts between the two to communicate on a basic human level. Interestingly, rather than film the Japanese scenes himself, Zhang appears to have delegated this task to the veteran Japanese director Furuhata Yasuo (who has worked wih Takakura Ken on big commercial pictures). The Japanese scenes are cool and quiet and visually present a sharp contrast with those in the village/towns of Western China. The two are often linked by phone conversations and this was one aspect of the film that reminded me of earlier comparisons I’ve tried to make between Zhang’s neo-realist films and those of recent Iranian Cinema. There is a scene in Abbas Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us (Iran 1999) in which an engineer from Tehran, visiting a remote village, has to climb a hill to get a mobile signal. In Riding Alone, a group of villagers follows Mr Takata around the village and onto the rooftops in a search for a signal. (In fact, the more I think about it, the more similar the two films become – in the Iranian film, the busy engineer travels to the village where a relative is dying and during his stay learns something about himself through observing village life.) I’m impressed that you can get through to Chinese villages from Tokyo on a mobile phone – there are parts of rural Northern England where getting a signal is very difficult.
The representation of Japanese technologies – phone, still camera, video camera and 4×4 vehicle – are very important in the story, but I was also reminded of recent Chinese films (e.g. the work of Jia Zhang-Ke, such as Unknown Pleasures, 2002) in which community music performances and local use of video technologies is key to the ‘New China’.
Riding Alone was distributed in North America by Sony and promoted as a Zhang Yimou film. I think it would have sold reasonably well in UK cinemas. I’d certainly recommend it.