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`Riding Alone' is really a journey into the heart

September 01, 2006|Kevin Thomas | Special to The Times

"Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles" represents the fulfillment of a long-cherished dream of China's master filmmaker Zhang Yimou to make a film with his childhood idol Ken Takakura, an iconic yakuza star but also an actor of much range and depth.

This leisurely, reflective film will please admirers of both the actor and director but will also demand a measure of patience and trust. That's because it risks sentimentality and discursiveness to evoke a more powerful impact than expected. It is not nearly so predictable a picture as it initially seems and emerges as a most eloquent plea for people to dare to express their feelings for their loved ones, particularly fathers for sons. It is a gentle film for Zhang, whose most famous works remain such politically and socially critical pictures as "Red Sorghum," "Raise the Red Lantern" and "To Live."

Takakura's Go-ichi Takata is a fisherman living in a village on the northwest coast of Japan who is summoned to Tokyo by his daughter-in law (Shinobu Terajima) when his long-estranged son Ken-ichi (Kiichi Nakai) falls ill and is soon diagnosed with terminal liver cancer.

When Ken-ichi refuses to see his father, Takata, overcome with a sense of failure as a parent, decides that he must complete a mission for his dying son. A Tokyo University Asian folk arts specialist, Ken-ichi had recently traveled to a remote mountain village in southern China's Yunnan province to film the celebrated opera star Li Jiamin (who in effect plays himself). Since Li was too ill at that time to perform his famous "Riding Alone" role, Ken-ichi promised he would return to film him the following year.

The opera, dating back more than a thousand years, tells of a Lord Guan who in a display of loyalty travels a great distance in behalf of a friend. It parallels the odyssey of Takata, who meets one unexpected obstacle after another in trying to fulfill his mission for his son.

Takata's experiences provide Zhang an opportunity to express his deep affection for rural Chinese, still living a largely ancient way of life, even in the presence of cellphones, in a land of ruggedly beautiful natural grandeur. Circumstances present an opportunity for Takata to bond with Li's 8-year-old son (Yang Zhenbo), which unleashes long-repressed paternal emotions in the stoic fisherman.

"Riding Alone" was written especially for Takakura, and it affords him the chance to give one of his most commanding portrayals. For anyone who has not seen Takakura on the screen for some years, it may come as a jolt to realize that he no longer looks the ageless gangster or swordsman. At 75 he is still vigorous and agile, his hair black, but his face has become creased and craggy. He is still handsome, dashing and never stronger than when expressing vulnerability to emotions long held in check.

"Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles" is unlikely to be ranked as one of Zhang's greatest accomplishments but is clearly the work of a major filmmaker. It is best seen as a heartfelt tribute to Takakura, as heroic and enduring a star as John Wayne.


"Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles"

MPAA rating: PG for mild thematic elements

A Sony Pictures Classics release. Director Zhang Yimou. Screenplay by Zou Jingzhi; based on a story by Zhang Yimou, Zou Jingzhi. Producers Bill Kong, Xiu Jian, Zhang Jingzhi. Cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding. Editor Cheng Long. In Mandarin and Japanese, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes.

Exclusively at the Royal, 115232 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 477-5581; the One Colorado Cinemas, 42 Miller Alley, Union at Fair Oaks (inside plaza), (626) 744-1224.

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