Wednesday, February 07, 2007


Before he started making bank as a peddler of digital-effects-driven arthouse Kung Fu movies, Zhang Yimou was a powerfully efficient filmmaker. Nobody could so quietly build up to a devestating finale. A piece of broken chalk in a poor rural school; a bowl of spilled dumplings; an ornate box intended for shadow puppets filled with baby chicks--that's all it took to ensure there wasn't a dry eye in the house. He's made four of my twenty favorite films.

Yimou has been riding the Crouching Tiger coat tails for so long, however, that he struggles with the material in Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles. All the elements are there but the trademark cathartic pay-off never happens. The story is interesting and deftly handled, and includes Japanese and Chinese characters and all the 20th-century baggage that entails. A Japanese father estranged from his son for years gets a call from his daughter-in-law. His son Kenichi is in the hospital, will he come visit? The son is a specialist in Oriental folk arts, with a particularly keen love of Chinese masked opera. Mr. Takata arrives at the hospital only to find Kenichi refuses to see him--it was merely his daughter-in-law's dream that they would reconcile. She gives Takata a tape of her son's last trip to China, in which a renowned local singer promises to sing "Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles" to Kenichi if he returns. The story of King Guan in this opera mirrors the quest Takata decides to take; he will voyage to China and film this singer singing this song in order to present it to Kenichi. Perhaps this is Takata's only way to reconcile with his boy.

Takata's quest turns ridiculous (a la Yimou's masterpiece The Story of Qui Ju), but along the way he begins to understand what fatherhood means, and he must grapple with his failures and his terrible loneliness. It might be too late to reconcile with his own son, but Takata can help others.

There are flashes of Yimou's former brilliance as he coaxes fantastic performances from his actors and situates them in artfully planned widescreen shots, and the dense symbolism of Takata's experience in a land where he doesn't speak the language but struggles to be understood is wonderfully resonant. Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles barely misses its mark. Perhaps 15 minutes of editing would elevate the emotional impact a bit from the level of Hallmark Channel mini-series. Yimou always managed to elude melodrama before, here he falls a bit short. A Yimou near-miss is still worthy, however. I'm ecstatic that he's moved away from shooting Zhang Yi-Yi doing fake harness martial arts before a blue screen. I thought he'd never come back!


Katrina said...

What are your top 20 films??

geoff said...

Oh, boy--that's a post in itself. By the time I finished it I'd have a different list, too.

Here are the four films by Zhang Yimou that always make the list:

Raise the Red Lantern
The Story of Qiu Ju
To Live
Not One Less

Two Kubrick films, The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut, Lynch's Mulholland Drive, Merchant Ivory's Howard's End and The Remains of the Day, a shifting smattering of Bergman and Kurosawa and the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Apocalypse Now, The Age of Innocence, Blood of a Poet, Nights of Cabiria.

Though the list fluxuates, these tend to stick around. Bergman and Kurosawa films move on and off the list because each time I see a new one of theirs it becomes a favorite.

What about yours?

Katrina said...

You must be excited about the Ingmar Bergman series at the Charles then! I myself was thrilled to the gills when they screened not only Yasujiro Ozu's films but Robert Bresson's as well (they are two of my very favorite directors, along with Chris Marker, Jacques Tati and Michel Gondry).

My top 20 (in alphabetical order)
Bad Education
Black Narcissus
Celine and Julie Go Boating
Chungking Express
Desperate Living
Edvard Munch
Mon Oncle
Morvern Callar
Nights of Cabiria
Pather Panchali
Sans Soleil
The Science of Sleep
Show Me Love
Tokyo Story
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

geoff said...

You know, I've not seen half of your list--shocking!

But pleased to see Werner Herzog and John Waters and Mon Oncle. I loved Mon Oncle. Herzog I'd pick Kasper Hauser or Aguirre over Stroszek, but Stroszek is amazing.

Have you seen Hundestag? That's some bleak shit right there.

Katrina said...

I highly recommend them all!

Kaspar Hauser (I love the shot of him dancing with the cat) and Aguirre are both great films, but I have a soft spot for Stroszek and the dancing chicken.

Haven't seen Hundestag but have seen a sad and disturbing documentary by the same director called Animal Love.

All this talk of Ingmar reminded me that Persona should be in that top 20 somewhere. I found it positively electrifying when I first saw it as a little film student.

I also have a couple of books on him to give you if you're interested.

geoff said...

"We can't stop the dancing chicken." Indeed! My goal in life is to ride a ski lift with a shotgun and a frozen turkey some day. I'm quite ambitious.

Persona set me off on a three-year Bergman obsession. I'm still recovering. And I don't want to recover.