Mainland Chinese helmer Zhang Yimou returns to the touching emotionalism of his earlier, smaller-scale dramas like “Not One Less” and “The Road Home” with “Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles,” a long way from his splashy martial arts successes, “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers.” A simple, low-budget, contempo dramedy — with plenty of clever plot reversals — about an aging man attempting to heal a rift with his grown son, pic will resonate with upscale arthouse auds, particularly those with parental responsibilities. However, canny marketing and festival platforming will be necessary for pic to ride into the black in the West.
In Japan, a village fisherman, Gou-ichi Takata (Ken Takakura), is summoned to Tokyo by his daughter-in-law, Rie (Shinobu Terajima), when her husband, Ken-ichi (Kiichi Nakai), is hospitalized with liver cancer. Father and son have not spoken in 10 years, and Rie reckons this an ideal time for reconciliation; but from his veiled hospital bed, Ken-ichi rejects the possibility outright. However, before Gou-ichi leaves, Rie gives him a videotape.
Back in the countryside, Gou-ichi watches the tape, shot by his son in the southern Chinese province of Yunnan as part of a research project into Chinese folk arts. The tape includes an unsuccessful attempt by Ken-ichi to cajole (from behind the camera) the region’s finest singer into performing a classic operatic ditty about friendship entitled “Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles.” Claiming a heavy cold impairs his voice, the singer, Li Jiamin (a Beijing Opera performer, playing himself), won’t comply but invites Ken-ichi to film him when he next visits.
Moved by the impossibility of his bed-ridden son ever returning to Yunnan, Gou-ichi decides to travel to China and film Li’s performance himself. This is despite the fact he can’t speak Mandarin and has no knowledge of Chinese music.
Arriving in Li’s village, Gou-ichi learns, via halting Japanese from a colorful local named “Lingo” (Qiu Lin), that Li is unavailable. Turns out the master-actor/singer is serving a jail-term for stabbing a supporting player who taunted him about his siring a bastard son. Though the song is to be performed in an opera mask, Gou-ichi will accept no substitutions: He asks to visit Li in jail.
Bureaucratic opposition is unexpectedly overcome, but when Gou-ichi reaches the prison and the camera is ready to roll, Li is unable to perform. Moved by Gou-ichi’s estrangement from his son, the singer becomes grief-stricken about his own (unseen) 8-year-old boy .
Envious of the actor’s emotional facility, the more withdrawn Gou-ichi sets his mission aside in order to unite Li and his illegitimate son, so the thesp will be able to perform the song. This last leg of Gou-ichi’s journey, taking him to the remote Stone Village where the boy (Yang Zhenbo) resides, occupies the last third of the picture. There’s more humor during this section, though the final reel, as in “The Road Home” and “Not One Less,” packs a powerful emotional punch that will leave many viewers misty-eyed.
Though both Qiu, as the interpreter, and Yang, as Li’s young son, are born scene-stealers, pic hangs — as it was designed to — on the commanding perf of Japanese vet Takakura. Known to Western viewers largely for “Black Rain” (1989) and “The Yakuza” (1975), Takakura brings an almost John Wayne-like quality to the stony-faced character of Gou-ichi, silently communicating the fisherman’s sorrow with eloquence .
Zhang’s direction is a master class in understatement and the script unfurls with clockwork precision. Though the visuals are as well-composed as a always, with some striking compositions of Yunnan landscapes, pic’s colors lack the vividness of most of his earlier films. The opening and closing shots of Gou-ichi at his seaside home, however, have a remarkable metallic blue/gray quality.
Although the picture is clearly Zhang’s own, Japanese-unit work is credited to veteran director Yasuo Furuhata (“Poppoya: Railroad Man,” “The Firefly”) and d.p. Daisaku Kimura (ditto). Score by Guo Wenjing incorporates elements of Japanese music, as well as Chinese opera, and is an efficient contributor to the film’s poignant impact. Other tech credits are rock solid.
Pic’s Chinese title, of which the English is a direct translation, refers to a well-known song in the literary classic, “Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” about a general who selflessly went on a long journey to help a friend. Film’s title in Japan, where release is skedded for January, is “Tanki, senri o hashiro.”