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!