2005 PRC/2006 USA
Directed by Zhang Yimou
Written by Zou Jingzhi and Zhang Yimou
Okay, so, like, I've read several contemporaneous reviews of Riding Alone For Thousands of Miles, and I don't know what kind of faux-sophisticates people were pretending to be in 2006 when it hit America, but not one of them mentions that this is a movie where an eight year-old kid takes a shit on camera. Maybe he doesn't really, physically take the shit. Maybe it's an effect. It is, anyway, onscreen. It is presented as a bonding moment between him and an adult—the context is they've gotten lost in the wilderness together, guy's not just barging into bathrooms—and the adult jokingly complains about the smell, which is fair enough. The adult also takes a photograph. This later plays into a sentimental and touching climax. It's not really offensive, or even too weird, if you think about it. Hey, I'm old enough to be aware of "baby photos" being the thing that in-laws would do to humiliate their grown children before their sexual partners—a strange practice, but, as far as I can tell from sitcoms, a common one, albeit one that not even Boomers engage in now—and that Western tradition (or perhaps just trope) is certainly weirder and more fraught once you ponder it. So it could be "cultural differences." They say that with Hero and House of Flying Daggers Zhang Yimou sold out, that he started pandering to American audiences. I do not see that at all in those films unless "being exciting" is alone enough to "pander to Americans," which is a stupid and snobbish thing to think. Curiously, now I can see where they're coming from, because there's "cultural differences," and then there's trolling, and this is the kind of thing somebody puts in a movie that exoticizes his own culture by emphasizing differences that I suspect are not that different, and it's not actually a thing in China (or Japan, as the adult is Japanese) where kids shitting is considered so precious that you take pictures of ones that aren't even your own. Maybe I am wrong and ignorant. Tell me, because I'm obviously not going to look it up. But there you are: this is the Zhang movie with onscreen kid-shitting. I don't like it, but I can roll with it.
It's jarring nonetheless, and it throws one off one's game for a minute, which is too bad, because otherwise (and if you cut out the literal separation of the turd from his butt, maybe even with the kid-shitting), Riding Alone is a very nice and very small film about anomie, grief, melancholy, and family—the latter defined by its gnawing absence. It was welcomed by the Film People in its day as a welcome respite from Zhang's mid-career turn toward wonderful grandiosity, and it arrived in 2006 between his pair of medieval historical fantasias, 2004's Flying Daggers and the same year's somehow-even-more-grandiose Curse of the Golden Flower. I would be unlikely to join in on that appraisal, because those are two of the best films of the 21st century, but I'm happy to praise Riding Alone as a sterling representation of how niceness and smallness can be pretty great, even if I'll never love it the way I love those.
So: for the first time in a while, and in what remains a legitimate rarity in Zhang's filmography (only four out of twenty-three films, in fact), Riding Alone is set in the then-present day of 2005. It is also, in its way, as much Japanese as Chinese, and Japan is where we begin, for there lives an old fisherman surnamed Takata (this is famed Japanese actor Ken Takakura, of approximately one zillion other performances, not a one of which I've ever seen, not even in Ridley Scott's Black Rain). This day Takata receives a call from his daughter-in-law Rie (Shinobu Terajima), asking him to come to Tokyo to see his son, Kenichi. Kenichi has recently been diagnosed with very bad, and very advanced, cancer. As Takata tells us in his voiceover—a constant spout of situational and character exposition for the first small stretch of the film, and Takata's inner monologue never dries up entirely—his relationship with his son was ruptured years ago, and for "unexplainable reasons" they have barely spoken since. Kenichi essentially despises him.
And there's no big reveal about that, incidentally—it's not that kind of movie—and Takata's not even lying to us, exactly, for both father and son don't understand why their relationship disintegrated, but the void where you'd presume Takata's wife and Kenichi's mother would be perhaps renders it largely understandable to us from the outset. The upshot is that Rie doesn't even tell Kenichi his father's coming, and when he shows up at the hospital, Kenichi won't let his father see him at all, and, indeed, doesn't even tell him to get out, he gets Rie to tell him this on his behalf. Rie, flailing for some way to console her father-in-law (and so perhaps, by extension, her own prospective grief as her husband slowly dies), offers Takata a tape of a video project Kenichi never got to complete, involving his passion for Chinese traditional Nuo opera. The tape features an interview from the self-proclaimed best in the business, a Nuo opera actor from Yunnan named Li Jiamin (played by Li Jiamin, an actual Nuo opera actor from Yunnan, because it is that kind of movie), promising a great performance of the Three Kingdom Era-set Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, which Kenichi didn't get to film. Takata gets the idea that if he completes Kenichi's project for him, then Kenichi will love him again, and, armed with purpose, Takata boards the next plane to Lijiang, Yunnan, People's Republic of China. It turns out that Takata's plan is easier conceived than executed. For starters, he doesn't speak any Chinese; his first interpreter, tour guide Jiang Wen (Jiang Wen), has to leave; his second interpreter, Qin Lin (Qin Lin), does not, in truth, speak Japanese; and by the time they get there Li Jiamin has been hauled off to prison to serve a three year term. Takata, however, does not give up, and in the process becomes a local sensation, as well as a bridge between Li Jiamin and his illegitimate and long-abandoned son, Yang Yang (Yang Zhenbo), and maybe (could you see it coming?) Yang Yang serves as a reflection of and salve for Takata's own feelings of paternal loss.
It is not what one would describe as an unpredictable movie; kid shit aside, everything that you could guess happens in it happens in it, and to some degree I think that's even the point, including the ways that Takata chases his quest to the point of diminishing returns in spite of the repeated suggestions that he stop. It's a spare and even sparse piece of cinema in some regards—the things it most resembles in Zhang's previous efforts are 1992's The Story of Qiu Ju and 1994's To Live, which also deployed a mostly-rural, mostly-drab realist aesthetic, very rarely even in the same visual universe as Ju Duo or Raise the Red Lantern. It's kind of amazing that Zhao Xiaoding shot this and all of Zhang's wuxia films from Flying Daggers on, and while it's 35mm, it's so gray and sharp it looks downright digital, even televisual, offering a flinty complexion to the already fairly-drab realism of the piece.
Or even neorealism, for that matter: there's those non-professional actors to contend with in addition to the lack of filmic ornamentation that accrues, for example, to a prison rec room with a flashing LED disco ball. The non-actors actually do a very fine job and I didn't know until I looked it up that they were basically just playing themselves (in addition to the Nuo opera guy, both the interpreters are actual tour guides), though I'm happy to admit that their performances could be hiding behind the language barrier. Of course, Li is still an actor, only of a different kind, and his emotions (which are more immediate than those in the helpmeet roles), come off as perfectly real. (The streamer of snot is impressive, if maybe slightly overboard.) And of course eight year olds are never, or rarely, professional actors in the first place, though Yang does well.
As for Qin Lin, who gets rather more screentime than Jiang Wen* (though she's probably more present vocally on phone calls, as she consents to continue to assist), he's also pretty good in his function, which is to look slightly goofy and awkward as he drags around an intense-looking foreigner who by definition can't fully participate in any of this, and it's as much through Qin as anything else that Riding Alone becomes very slightly a comedy, particularly as the pair attempt to navigate the bureaucratic hurdles of trying to film an opera singer in prison, and Qin constantly lugs around the opera's prop polearm to meetings with Communist officials, looking like he's going to behead somebody, though clearly his oddly-threatening appearance hasn't even occurred to him.
It's not really a bureaucratic farce, though—it has whispers of that—but instead it's a movie about how gosh-darned nice rural Chinese are. Sometimes I think it's gently but actively mocking the stiltedness that culturally-mandated politeness can bring about, the Japanese version of it more than the Chinese, and whenever someone, usually Qin, does a bow at Takata, Takakura is visibly suspicious of the gesture. But the Chinese bend over forwards and backwards to help Takata once they come to fully understand the meaning of his quest. It's almost an advertisement for the Yunnan Tourism Board in this regard (and others: it has some pretty-ish landscape photography, albeit pretty mainly because the rock formations would still be pretty under any photographic treatment), but it's not quite, because Takata is resolutely never a tourist. One gets the impression he does not even "like" China in any particularly salient way (Takakura's final closeup is deeply, deeply ambiguous as regards how much he "likes" Nuo opera specifically), yet he does like the people he meets, and knows he owes them a great deal even if his very presence is a potentially-rude imposition of obligation on them. (And the emotional arc of the movie, in fact, is his coming to comprehend that.) The biggest reveal, though I again aver it's not a movie about reveals, and I believe it's useful for understanding why the film works, is that they did know Kenichi, and were almost entirely indifferent to him, even though he could speak Chinese. In a way, Takata's very out-of-placeness—the obviousness of it—draw his new friends to him. He's helpless, he's desperate, he's uncommonly insistent, and he will beg if he has to—the film's first hour's boldest stab at your heart is enormous in its very tininess, coming mediated via videotape as Takata pathetically asks administrators for help while hiding his uncontrollable weeping behind a flag-colored "thank you" banner he bought at a roadside stall (it is, I think, the only scene where he takes off his hat)—and the Chinese respond to his need with humanity and compassion because it's really hard not to.
After all, the film is anchored, and anchored very hard, by the magnetic hurt of Takakura's performance. It's by default a quiet performance, and you get the distinct feeling that Takata would actually have fewer lines if he could be understood; it's a powerhouse of restraint and actorly minimalism. He somehow manages to be incredibly human despite no human personality beyond his mission, and somehow manages to be expressive despite having nearly just the one expression, speaking volumes with his wrinkles and with infinite yet infinitesimal variations on a pinched (even sour) thin-lipped frown and frequent sidelong glances at nothing. Zhang follows his actor with his own minimalism, and for all that Riding Alone rejects obvious artifice it remains controlled in its own way, with Takakura frequently blocked out of shots, and while this isn't a "color" movie like Hero or anything, when he's in them his conspicuously dark clothes almost render him negative space. Which he kind of is, even if he's also the film's protagonist and the reason (almost) everything in it happens.
There are only a few shots that compel one to remark "that, there, is one fine shot," but the images that strike home, really strike home. Curiously, both of my favorites aren't of Takata, but Rie. (The first is just a great, almost-axial composition of Terajima crying as she clings to a railing, but it's not narratively-essential; the second is hugely narratively-essential, and its effect conjured mostly through editing, as in a cut the background becomes filled with dark, dark black accents and we are required to wait what seems like an eternity before Takata learns what we already figured out from the set decoration.) Riding Alone For Thousands of Miles is not necessarily a film that demands your attention like Zhang's masterpieces do, and it's not my favorite kind of film in any event; it even has its own flaws, like the voiceover narration, and it can get kind of actively condescending when Takakura just starts explicitly stating themes at us. (But that's a Zhang thing anyhow: even Raise the Red Lantern, nominally a Movie For Intellectuals, does that.) But when it's great, it's great, and its turn toward high-test melodrama within a realist-approaching-neorealist framework absolutely works. It's a weepy one.
*Jiang Wen, incidentally, is called "Jasmine" in the subtitles which is not even close, and it's never less than grating, and Qin is called "Lingo," which is also distracting but at least a parsable joke.