Cinema Signal:

A Hundred Years of Japanese Film:
A Concise History, with a Selective Guide to DVDs and Videos
. "Riding Alone For Thousands Of Miles"
(aka, "Qian li zou dan qi")

This is Zhang Yimou's longest title, and that's saying a lot, what with "House of Flying Daggers" and "Raise the Red Lantern" to his credit. His output represents a majority of my favorite films from Asia, not counting Akira Kurosawa ("Rashoman") and others of a prior era. Besides Yimou's almost lifelong habit of casting Gong Li, (and, now, Zhang Ziyi) his visual pallette is characteristically rich. Often, astoundingly so. And, despite the tour de force that "Daggers" represents and, even his excellent "Hero," a film of his that lingers in my memory for its overall artistry is "Ju Dou." Others may point also to the chic mystery of "Shanghai Triad."

I'd be the first to agree with anyone who thinks that a new film by him is a major cinema event. He's on my short list of Best Directors.

To dispense with the burdensome title, it's the name of the opera that figures into this modern story of a father-son relationship that has gone wrong and which mirrors, in its clever way, the Japan-China relationship. The idea is that estrangement and rejection serves no one, and that the quicker schisms are mended, the better for both sides.

Our central figure is Gou-ichi Takata (Ken Takakura), an aging fisherman (Takakura is a spry 75) who well represents the maturity and wisdom that years bring to facial character. In a first scene, he alone occupies the frame as he stares out at the sea contemplating the pain of his years-long estrangement from his son, Ken-ichi (voiced by Kiichi Nakai since he's never seen). Shortly thereafter, he receives a phone call from Rie Takata, Ken-ichi's wife and Gou-ichi's extremely faithful daughter-in-law. Hubby Ken has been taken ill and is in the hospital. He's in fact very ill and wouldn't this be a good opportunity to mend fences?

Gou-ichi agrees and makes the long trip to the big city but his arrival is met with quick and utter rejection by the sick man. Rie is devastated, assuring her father-in-law that the idea was hers alone. In abject mortification over the outcome, she apologizes profusely and hands the old man a broadcast tape of his TV-personality son so that he might know something about Ken-ichi. In the video, Ken-ichi interviews a Chinese opera singer in the provincial Chinese town of Yunnan and implores him to sing the classic opera "Riding Alone For Thousands Of Miles" for his camera. The singer refuses, citing a throat ailment, and Ken-ichi promises to return in one year, a more propitious time.

So, when Rie calls again to inform him that the hospital tests show Ken-ichi has cancer, Gou-ichi decides to go himself to Yunnan to get that show videoed as a final gift for his dying son.

This sets off a picaresque journey full of comedic miscommunication and constant alteration of plans, new friends and a series of trials that send our intrepid father into new directions. Every plan unravels and leads to another. Unexpected discoveries reward him (and us) in what develops into an exploration of the human heart. To the extent that it will touch on viewers everywhere, the appeal of such satire, comedy and high adventure is entirely international. It's "Big Deal on Madonna Street" and French farce with social underpinnings. Up to a point.

There comes a time, unfortunately, when Yimou seems to be reverting to extreme sentimentality as though he doesn't trust his audience to get it and must hammer it home. The new style almost sinks the ship. He plays out farewells as though he's doing "Shane." Hardnosed officials bow to his hero's every need, accomodating every decision. Our interest in the aging, admirable father is affected, but it fortunately isn't undone by all the heart thumping. Yimou's mastery in storytelling suffers but its virtues remain intact. This is a film that should be seen.

Seeing the nearly legendary Ken Takakura is reason enough. His film star status will be burnished by his performance here, no small accomplishment after 131 films since his start in 1956. As a cinema presence in Japan, he's one of the tallest trees in the forest and here imparts the justification for the reverence he receives. His performance is solid and as fine tuned as a concert violin.

The supporting cast is cannily put together for qualities of endearment, from Lin Qiu's devoted guide Lingo, Li Bin Li's Director, Zhenbo Yang's adorable little rebel Yang Yang to Shinobu Terajima's highly cultured, much suffering Rie.

The symbolic ironies of Yimou's shift to modern times for a treatment of family issues and cultural concerns tells us something about the state of Japan's dramatic susceptibilities. It's his and Ken Takakura's combined talents that turn a picaresque adventure into a rich vein in a gold mine.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  
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