Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles (Beijing New Picture Film Co. , 2005)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The library movie was the awkwardly titled Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, a Chinese-Japanese co-production credited to well-known Chinese director Zhang Yimou (though the order of his names is reversed on the imdb.com entry for the film, which also lists it under its Chinese title, Qian li zou dan qi), though in fact Zhang only shot the parts of the film that take place in China. The parts set in Japan (i.e., the framing story) were directed by Yasuo Furuhata, who was designated as “uncredited” on imdb.com even though he is credited on the closing roll.

The central character is a middle-aged Japanese man, Gou-ichi Takata (Ken Takakura), who lives in an isolated coastal fishing village but travels to Tokyo in the opening sequence (taking the bullet train, which is as cool-looking as I’ve always imagined it) to see his son Ken-ichi, who’s in a hospital dying of cancer and is so bitter about how his dad treated him during childhood and early adulthood that he refuses to see him despite the entreaties of Rie (Shinobu Terajima), Ken-ichi’s wife and one of the voices of reason in this film. Though Ken-ichi is listed in the credits as being played by actor Kiichi Nakai, he’s never shown in the film except during a flashback sequence, a video he shot during his years in the Chinese outback of a performance of a folk opera called Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles starring a legendary singer/actor, Jiamin Li (who appears as himself).

Rie gives her father-in-law a VHS tape of this (which seems a bit anachronistic for a 2005 movie) and he watches it and hears Li complain that Ken-ichi caught him on a bad day and he wants another chance to film his performance when he can do it better. So Gou-ichi decides to travel to China, find the remote village in which his son was living when he shot the tape, and film another performance of the opera featuring Li. When he arrives, not surprisingly he’s confronted by the Chinese bureaucracy — he needs approval from the Foreign Ministry and the Culture Ministry and the Bureau of Prisons, the last because in the meantime Li has been arrested and incarcerated (we’re never told for what). He’s also confronted by a female interpreter , Jasmine (Jiang Wen), since the only person in the Chinese village that knows even a little Japanese is the opera’s producer, Lingo (Lin Qiu), and even he knows only a little. The story obviously attempts to depict the culture shock facing a monolingual Japanese tourist among monolingual Chinese — and I’m sure this element of the story worked fine in both Japan and China, but to the Occidental ear (this Occidental ear, anyway) Chinese and Japanese sound too similar and neither is comprehensible. (It’s not just that I don’t know these languages, it’s that they’re both Asian and therefore farther removed from my sound world than the European languages; had the film been about a French tourist in the darkest reaches of the Black Forest and surrounded by people who speak only German, that I would have got.)

The opening parts of this movie are rather dull, but the film picks up dramatic power and punch when Gou-ichi meets Yang Yang (played by refreshingly unsentimental child actor Zhenbo Yang), Jiamin Li’s illegitimate son, whom he tried to acknowledge publicly just before he was arrested — which for some reason only got him into more trouble with the law. What’s more, Yang Yang is bitter towards his father for having abandoned him — the parallel with Gou-ichi’s situation with his own son is unstressed but readily apparent — and the bitterness extends so far that Yang Yang runs away (in a marvelous section of Chinese countryside that looks remarkably like the Grand Canyon) rather than agree to let Gou-ichi and Jasmine take him to the prison where his father is being held. Yang Yang and Gou-ichi get lost in the Chinese Grand Canyon (along the way Yang Yang has to take a dump, and for the first time in my moviegoing life I actually got to see shit come out of a person’s behind on screen — did Zhang actually cue this or was it a special effect?) and have to spend the night sleeping outside before they’re finally rescued.

After the story line involving Yang Yang, Gou-ichi finally gets permission to visit Li in prison — though in the meantime he’s received a cell phone call from Rie, who said that Ken-ichi told her to tell him that filming the opera really isn’t that important to him; the important thing was that dad was willing to go all the way to China on his behalf — though Gou-ichi is still tortured because he has no way of knowing whether his son actually said this or Rie made it up to make him feel better. By the time he arrives at the prison, he gets another call from Rie, this one telling him that Ken-ichi has died — but the special performance of the opera in prison goes on anyway, with Gou-ichi running a hand-held video camera, and it’s in progress as we fade out.

I was a bit disappointed overall by this movie — it’s good but it’s hardly in the same league as Zhang’s masterpiece, Raise the Red Lantern — though the last two story arcs are fine and moving, and portray the theme that we’d better maintain our connections to our families no matter how much grief they’ve caused us lest our relatives die or disappear on us and deprive us of the chance; and the film is also splendid visually. The scenes in Japan are shot in a cool blue tone, while the scenes in China are a riot of color highlighted by the red banners used in the opera performance; when cinematographer Xiaoding Zhao uses brown tones, it’s because he’s shooting things one would expect to be brown — rocks, soil, wood — not that it’s just his default option. I could have used a better movie yesterday afternoon, but this one was still pretty good.