Gou-ichi (the great Ken Takakura) makes a modest living as a fisherman in Japan, and lives a very lonesome existence away from family. Ken-ichi (Kiichi Nakai), his son, especially, wants nothing to do with him due to some unnamed conflict. When he finds out his son has liver cancer, however, he rushes to his bedside but is denied by the son's constant grudge. Instead, he is met by Rie (Shinobu Terajima), his daughter-in-law, who gives him a tape of footage his son took of legendary opera star Li Jiamin (the Chinese opera performer plays himself). Sadly, Jiamin couldn't sing the son's favorite song, "Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles," but promised Ken-ichi he would perform it the next time he toured in front of the camera. Moved by the terminal state of his son, Gou-ichi sets himself on a journey to China to videotape the singer and possibly stitch up the rift between him and his son.
It's a sentimental journey, and that might be the film's most fatal point. While cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding (also of House of Flying Daggers) films both countries beautifully, there is something peculiarly hokey about the film's language and its overdone story of death and making amends. The moments that hit hardest are those where we are alone with Gou-ichi, especially the mystical, ambient opening shot of him on the banks of the river. Though he has always been known for treading into obvious, overwrought dialogue, Yimou burdens the film unendingly here with moments that should speak through image rather than bumbling sentimentality.
This is not to say that the actors overcome it for the most part. Takakura, a monument of acting in his native Japan, has garnered much respect for his reserved, coiled performances that garner similarities to Clint Eastwood and John Wayne. Here, he carries the film with little intervention from other actors. Most notable is Qiu Lin as Lingo, a guide of sorts in Li's village who attempts to help Gou-ichi when he arrives in China. Kiichi Nakai also makes good on the scant time he is given as Ken-ichi, but Terajima overdoes her role as the daughter-in-law and doesn't give the conversations between her and Gou-ichi enough sincerity and realism.
Riding Alone makes an interesting pause between his last two films and the upcoming Curse of the Golden Flower, but it doesn't bode well in the canon of Yimou, whose Raise the Red Lantern was a much more interesting and honest drama than this. Character studies about age and family can be enthralling and sometimes transcendental (check out the films of the late, great Yasujiro Ozu), but the film trades that for the well-tread territory that Hallmark built its name on.
The DVD includes a making-of featurette.
Aka Qian li zou dan qi.
You're never alone when there's kabuki theater around.
Run time: 107 mins
In Theaters: Thursday 22nd December 2005
Distributed by: Sony Pictures Classics
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 80%
Fresh: 60 Rotten: 15
IMDB: 7.5 / 10
Director: Zhang Yimou
Producer: Zhang Yimou
Screenwriter: Zhang Yimou, Zou Jingzhi
Starring: Ken Takakura as Gou-ichi Takata, Shinobu Terajima as Rie Takata, Kiichi Nakai as Ken-ichi Takata (voice), Ken Nakamoto as Electrician, Li Jia-Min as Li Jiamin, Jiang Wen as Jasmine, Lin Qiu as Lingo
Also starring: Zhang Yimou
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