Shanghaiist greeted the news that Zhang Yimou had gone back to making touching humanistic films set in the backwaters of China with some trepidation. We hope, after the disappointment of Hero and the even more atrocious House of Flying Daggers that Zhang has gotten this whole slick martial arts fantasia thing out of his system, like Michael Jordan and his minor league baseball lark. Zhang even managed to get veteran Japanese actor Takakura Ken for the lead role. Like Not One Less and The Road Home, the film is shot in a fairly realistic, almost documentary style and the plot is fairly lean, more a short story than a novel.
A Japanese man finds out that his estranged son is dying of cancer and has an abiding interest in the folk operas of Yunnan. Thinking of this as perhaps the last thing he could do for his son, the man travels to China and attempts to finish taping the performance of the opera from which the film derives its name — Riding Alone For Thousands of Miles. The problem is, the performer of this opera is now in jail. While the plot is fairly simple, Zhang packs in loads of tearjerking moments, which in the end feel somewhat contrived. Whenever we’re supposed to be moved, we’re cued by close up shots of characters crying. Everyone seems a bit too accomodating and caring for our tastes. The Japanese man, Takata is stoic and unemotional and delivers up some monologic tripe about that, in case we didn’t know. The peasants are stereotypical as well, always looking out for No. 1 but moved by the determination of Takata and his mission, soon begin to to unreservedly assist Takata in doing whatever it takes to complete his mission.
There’s something incredibly disingenuous about filmmakers of Zhang’s age, stature, and skill making films like this, where all the meaningful confessions and emoting always seem to occur at just the right moments. This film could have been described as something along the lines of a “meditation on the relationships of fathers and sons”, but as it is it doesn’t quite deserve that description. The core of the film is the father, which is fine, because Takakura Ken’s face conveys the pain of a distant father who cannot deny the gravamen of a son to whom he denied so much of the warmth that sons require from their fathers. But most of the other characters of the film resemble too much cardboard cutouts for our tastes.
Certainly, the film resembles most the The Road Home and Not One Less in that they feature simple plots with stubborn protagonists who try to get what they want, only to find something deeper or more meaningful. Not bad as it goes, but don’t expect the masterpieces of pre-Hero Zhang Yimou. Our final two cents worth: this movie is definitely worth a watch on DVD and should definitely win you some sensitivity brownie points with your friends, but don’t bother watching this on the big screen. This has as much to do with having to listen to someone’s cell phone conversation, continuous film commentary from the two girls sitting next to you, and the annoying sound of plastic bags of snacks being opened by the old couple in front of you.
For very complete coverage of anything related to this movie, from behind-the-scenes stuff to media reports, check out Monkey Peaches, definitely one of the more organized and dedicated of film sites in Chinese. For a basic Chinese synopsis of the film and its themes, try this. If you’re more interested in commentary on this film and how it will fare against the other blockbusters of this season, read here.
Official movie poster courtesy of www.sjzdaily.com.cn.