In his last two films, Hero and House Of Flying Daggers, Zhang Yimou revealed a talent for emotionally charged, elaborately choreographed martial-arts dramas that few suspected he had in him. But really, Zhang was just doing what he'd always done. Whether depicting contemporary rural China, the Cultural Revolution, or an ancient land of acrobatic strife, he's a master of intimate character pieces. It's just that sometimes the backdrops are a little busier.
For most of the considerably smaller-scale Riding Alone For Thousands Of Miles, Zhang works against the wide-open spaces of provincial China, following middle-aged Japanese protagonist Ken Takakura on a seemingly quixotic mission. Unexpectedly called to Tokyo by his daughter-in-law, he learns that his estranged son, a documentary filmmaker, is apparently gravely ill. When the son turns his father away, Takakura decides to fulfill the son's never-completed promise to film renowned folk-opera star Li Jiamin performing the heroic opera "Riding Alone For Thousands Of Miles."
With the earnest, but only occasionally effective, assistance of "translator" Qui Lin, Takakura bounces from one obstacle to the next, a journey that takes him from Li's hometown to a prison to a bustling, remote village. As the task becomes more complex, the title takes on and sheds irony. The stoic Takakura meets many new friends eager to help him on his quest, but that doesn't make the task any less lonely. Meanwhile, Zhang balances inspired moments of comedy atop what's ultimately a tragic story of lost time and the stubborn pride that can keep fathers and sons apart. Only the sentimental final moments, which pause the movie to dictate what it's all about, threaten to break the spell. By that point, anyone who has a heart shouldn't have to be told why it's breaking.