Film Review: Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles

by Celeste Heiter, Jul 30, 2008 | Destinations: Japan / China
Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles

Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles

Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles

Koichi Takata is a man on a mission: A quest across the vast plains of central China to videotape a performance of the mask opera Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles.  

Koichi is a fisherman in a remote village in Japan. When he travels to Tokyo to visit his estranged son Kenichi, a documentary filmmaker with terminal cancer, Kenichi refuses to see him. His son's wife Rie gives Koichi a videotape of one of Kenichi's documentaries which features a mask opera troupe in Yunnan province. In the film, on the eve of Kenichi's departure from China, Li Jianmin, the star of the opera troupe, invites Kenichi to a performance of Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles. Since Kenichi cannot stay to see the performance, he promises Li Jianmin that he will return to Yunnan next year to see it. A promise that was never destined to be fulfilled.  

Upon his arrival in the town of Lijiang City in Yunnan Province, Koichi is met by Jasmine, a Japanese guide and interpreter, who introduces him to Lingo, his Chinese liaison for the trip. Lingo speaks a little Japanese, but not nearly enough to navigate the complicated turn of events that follow. When they arrive at the opera house, they discover that Li Jianmin is in prison, serving a three-year term for stabbing a fellow actor in the eye over an insult regarding Li Jianmin's illegitimate son.

Still determined to carry out his misson, Koichi hatches a plan to bribe the prison officials to allow Li Jianmin to perform Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles in prison. At this point, Jasmine bids him adieu, with a kind offer to interpret via cell phone if needed. Before she leaves, Jasmine advises Koichi that he needs to visit the Office of Foreign Affairs to petition a visit to the prison, and then to the Bureau of Justice for approval of his petition.  

At the Office of Foreign Affairs, Koichi is informed that filming inside a prison is complicated, and there is no precedent. When the Foreign Affairs officer advises him to abandon his petition, steadfast in his quest, Koichi makes a videotape of himself (with Lingo acting as interpreter) explaining that he did something to hurt his son many years ago, and now that his son is dying of cancer, he wants to help him fulfill his dream of seeing Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles. Koichi's poignant plea is so effective that the director of Foreign Affairs agrees to allow Koichi to film the opera inside the prison. But when the long awaited moment finally comes, Li Jianmin is so overcome with grief and regret over abandoning his illegitimate son, he is too distraught to perform.  

The incident at the prison inspires Koichi for yet another journey, this time to Stone Village, to meet Li Jianmin's son Yang Yang and bring him to the prison to meet his father. There he learns that the boy's mother has died and he is now being raised by the villagers. The town elders accept that the child as Li's illegitimate son, but do not accept Li Jianmin finally claiming him after so many years. Nonetheless, with Jasmine interpreting via cell phone, the elders agree to allow Yang Yang to go with Koichi to visit his father in prison. Afterwards, they enjoy a lavish banquet, and Koichi takes photos of Yang Yang with his digital camera. 

Koichi, Yang Yang, and Lingo travel by tractor from Stone Village to the prison, but along the way, the tractor breaks down, and Yang Yang wanders off into a canyon. The villagers soon arrive to help Koichi search for him, but it's close to dark when Koichi finally finds him, so they must spend the night in the canyon, neither speaking each other's language. And when they are finally reunited with Yang Yang's family of villagers, with Jasmine acting as interpreter via cell phone once again, the child explains that he doesn't want to meet his father. The elders all agree that they shouldn't force him, so Yang Yang returns to Stone Village, and Koichi goes back to the prison to film Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles. But upon his arrival, yet another unexpected turn of events redirects the purpose of his mission, and changes the lives of two men forever.  

Directed by Zhang Yimou, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles is a film with many themes, both conceptual and visual: of transgression and redemption, of separation and reunion, of limitation and freedom, of art and reality, of communication and barriers, of pride and shame, of self and other, and ultimately the humanity that unites us all. The visual themes are classic Zhang Yimou with his masterful use of color, this time in shades of turquoise, jade green, and rose. And as always, Yunnan Province provides a geographically inspiring backdrop for this heartfelt journey through the parallel lives of two men that intersect in one shining moment.