RIDING ALONE FOR THOUSANDS OF MILES directed by Zhang Yimou, written by Zhang and Zou Jhingszi, w/ Ken Takakura , Shinobu Terajima, Li Jiamin and Qiu Lin. 107 minutes. An Odeon Films release. Opens Friday (September 22). Subtitled. For venues and times, see Movies, page 105. Rating: NN Rating: NNNNN
Zhang Yimou is unquestionably a great director. His filmography, including both his epic melodramas starring Gong Li (Ju Dou, Raise The Red Lantern) and his electrifying wuxia epics Hero and House Of Flying Daggers, provides eloquent proof.
Riding Alone For Thousands Of Miles (somewhere in Iran, Abbas Kiarostami is kicking himself for not thinking up that title) is a low-key drama starring the veteran Japanese actor Ken Takakura as Takata, a fisher who is estranged from his grown son.
When he learns that his son is very ill, he tries to contact him, only to be rebuffed at the hospital. His daughter, Rie (a lovely and affecting performance by Shinobu Terajima), gives him a video his son made for television about Chinese opera, and Takata decides to go to China to fulfill his son's promise to find and film performer Li Jiamin (who plays himself).
This extravagant gesture turns into an overlong adventure organized around the theme of communication. Takata can't communicate with his son, so he goes to China, where he can't communicate with anyone. His translator leaves him with a local fellow named Lingo (Qui Lin), who barely speaks Japanese.
From this point, the second half of the film is about twice as long as it needs to be. Takata confronts his inability to connect with people, a plight symbolized by the fact that he's forced to climb hilltops to reach his translator by cellphone.
We get it. Really. And we keep getting hit over the head with it long past the point of dramatic necessity.
Riding Alone is beautifully filmed. The landscapes of Yunnan province in southern China are spectacular, and Zhang gets full value from the lines in Takakura's face. An actor for half a century (most of the crime movie specialist's films were not released in North America), he's best known here for his role in Sydney Pollack's 1974 film The Yakuza.
Some North American reviewers have disliked the overwrought emotionalism of a lot of the scenes, but that's a given in a story about family reconciliations and loss.
The real problem is that once the film gets where it's going thematically, it has nowhere else to go. Riding Alone should be about 90 minutes long, but it runs for 107, and you start to feel every one of them as you watch.