Celebrated for lush period melodramas like Raise the Red Lantern and Ju Dou, Chinese director Zhang Yimou recently reinvented his career with the lavish martial arts films House of Flying Daggers and Hero. Splashing the screen with vibrant colors and graceful acrobatics, he quickly proved himself a master of this audience-pleasing film genre.
His latest effort, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, demonstrates that Yimou is determined to thwart expectations and avoid the pigeonhole. A curiously sentimental film that manages to avoid sappiness, it evokes the director's lesser-known dramas The Road Home and Happy Times.
Japanese great Ken Takakura plays Gou-ichi Takata, a widower who has exiled himself to the isolation of a remote fishing village. When his estranged son is diagnosed with liver cancer, he travels to see him but is rebuffed. Determined to heal the rift between them, he impulsively sets off for mainland China to videotape a folk opera his son hoped to one day see. However, he discovers that Li Jiamin, the performer he sought to film, has been imprisoned for assault. In order to get Jiamin to perform, he must journey deeper into rural China to retrieve the singer's illegitimate son. Even then, the complications continue to grow, and Takata's stoicism and conviction prove to be both assets and flaws.
This story of two fathers desperately trying to connect with their sons is deceptively simple. Yimou's elegant painterly touches and patient eye for small important gestures keep the otherwise maudlin plot flourishes at bay. Above all, the director understands the profound expressiveness of Takakura's craggy face as it conveys the full weight of regret and hope with a clench of the jaw or the lift of an eyebrow. It's a masterfully minimalist performance that holds your attention from the film's first frame until its last.
Ultimately, Riding Alone is a minor but lovely film that seeks to gently move its audience. Though it will probably disappoint fans of Yimou's more opulent efforts, those who can appreciate its undemanding warmth will be won over.
In Mandarin and Japanese with English subtitles. Showing at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Sept. 13-14, and at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 15, at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237).
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.