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Front-loaded with family discord, terminal cancer, prodigal jailbait, a cute kiddie looking for love, and other accessories of the ready-to-wear soap opera, Zhang Yimou's Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles is as heartfelt, sincere, and soggy with nostalgia as some of his other periodic homages to the virtues of peasant life in the backwaters of China. Coming off the visceral House of Flying Daggers and Hero, this new film, which wears its heart on its sleeve along with its dewy populism, is slow and pretty and duller than you'd hope for from an art-house sophisticate like Zhang. The early flirtation with a promising idea "backward" China's tense history with high-tech Japan soon falls away to reveal a fatally reverential vehicle for veteran Japanese actor Ken Takakura and the greater glory of the post-Mao proletariat.
Not for nothing is Takakura who has a Hollywood résumé as long as your arm but is best known in this country for his role in Ridley Scott's 1989 Black Rainknown as the Asian Clint Eastwood. As Gou-ichi Takata, a lonely old man sitting out his declining years in a Japanese fishing village, he barely lifts an eyebrow, even when his character tries to register the illness of a faraway son he hasn't spoken to in years. The source of their rift is one of the few things that go unexplained in a movie that leaves little else to our imagination.
Distraught over his son's refusal to receive him in person, Takata sets off on unaccustomed impulse for the wilds of rural China. There he will retrace the steps of a fruitless journey his son has recently taken in search of a performance of the titular classic Chinese opera, whose feckless star, Li Jiamin (playing himself), now languishes in prison. Armed with a pretty interpreter and a homely guide one sweetly wise, the other sweetly incompetent the old man drives through ravishing countryside, running into obediently colorful characters and meaningful parallels that serve to reveal what matters in life, namely loyalty to family and kindness to others.
Like most road movies, Riding Alone ends up being more about self-discovery than journey's end, but Takata's inner voyage from impassive to expressive, with the aid of straight-talking villagers and a gap-toothed little cutie hungry for parenting, comes at you with such guileless transparency that there's no sense of transformation, only a mechanical slog from A to B. Compared to the lively wit of Zhang's best rural movie, The Story of Qiu Ju (1992), the laughs in Riding Alone arrive with such circumspect fastidiousness that a brief flurry of toilet humor, designed to show us that Takata can get down with the earthoisie, comes as a cathartic relief.
Born in 1950, Zhang grew up in the shadow of Mao, and though his country movies The Road Home, Not One Less, Ju Dou frequently extol the tenacious survival skills of peasant communities devastated by the cruelties of the Cultural Revolution, they never fully break free of that period's loopy idealization of the agrarian life. Far from paying tribute to the rural poor, Riding Alone patronizes them by conflating simplicity with simple-mindedness and reducing them to binary oppositions the prison administrator who reveals the softie within; the village elder who's clumsy with a cell phone but knows from collective responsibility; the convict who grows up in a hurry; and the aging Japanese inscrutable, who experiences less a spiritual rebirth than a Great Leap Forward. As a cri de coeur from an urban intellectual, perhaps himself conflicted by individual success and yearning to express the collective consciousness that was bred into the bone of his generation (however energetically they've tried to shed it), the movie is strangely flat. Beautifully photographed by Zhao Xiaoding, who also shot Flying Daggers and Hero, Riding Alone dutifully offers up the expected scenic pleasuresthe majestic sweep of a mountain range, the brightly colored abundance of a village feast. Zhang has said that he "wanted the look of a still-life painting." Instead, he has sent us a fancy little postcard.
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