There was once a father in Mexico who was estranged from his son. One day, after a particularly mighty argument, the son left. But now, Papa was old and longed for his return. So he placed an ad in the paper saying, "Pedro, Papa loves you and wants to see you. Meet me in the town square on Friday at noon." The day came. When Papa arrived, he saw not one, but dozens of Pedros waiting – all broken, hurt, and yearning for their father's forgiveness.
A common name; a common need for reconciliation. Yet it takes an uncommon film like Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles to reach us in the most sacred spaces of our hearts: the place we return to when we find an old photograph, when a stray scent triggers a watershed of memories, or when it is too late and a loved one dies.
Many films have played our emotions like a full orchestra: The Shawshank Redemption, I Am Sam, Titanic. But with Riding Alone, writer and director Zhang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers) trades formulaic sentimentality for a sensitive, raw and genuinely moving film about human relationships.
Gou-ichi (Takakura Ken) is the stoic Japanese father who may remind us of our own emotionally inept dads. After his dying son refuses to see him, he sets off on a journey to China's Yunnan province to film a famous opera singer, Li Jiamin, whom his son had not managed to film while on an assignment there. He does this hoping that somehow, his son – a lover of Chinese folk culture – might feel happier.
It turns out to be quite an ordeal, with setbacks ranging from language barriers, bureaucratic red tape, right to the fact that Li is now in prison. All this makes for an engaging conundrum as the perplexity of human behaviour unfolds. On a broad scale, we see a nation grappling with the aftermath of communism; their insecurities, search for identity and national pride. Then on a personal level, we have the translator who exceeds her scope of duty to be kind; the daughter-in-law who lies to protect the family; the prisoner mouthing reform slogans who breaks down at the sight of his bastard son.
Gou-ichi's lonely journey takes place against a breathtaking backdrop of rural China and its folk culture, caught masterfully by Zhang. Indeed, Zhang's joy in filming Riding Alone is obvious; the film is full of visual affections, delightful parallels and symbolisms that outweigh and outshine the average tearjerker. The entire cast, made up of non-actors, shamelessly gives us real poo, real goo, and an occasionally hilarious performance to boot.
At the end of his long journey, Gou-ichi concludes, "Loved ones should not mask their feelings for each other." His words reverberate like the old gong. What our most significant relationships need is a self-denying, honest communication of love. We can't barter this with cute MMSes and love song radio dedications that dissipate when we don't get our way. In the most sacred spaces of our hearts lies an ugly beast called Pride, which must die before it is too late. In a cold cinema of strangers, Riding Alone embraces each one of us, despite our wretched past, and helps us let go.
RIDING ALONE FOR THOUSANDS OF MILES
13 April 2006
1 hour 45 minutes
Takakura Ken, Terajima Shinobu, Nakai Kiichi
You won't find any big-brand product placements in this film. Instead, we have close-ups of two Chinese TV brands: KONKA and CHANG HONG. Long live 'Made in China' products.