“Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles” - Zhang Yimou (2005)

Coming just after his two big-budget wuxia martial-arts extravaganzas, Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004), Zhang Yimou’s Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles (Qian Li Zou Dan Qi, 2005) was a welcome return to his previous, more intimate, cinematic style.  Zhang’s wuxia films were flashy visual spectacles bristling with technical craftsmanship, but they were also schematic and cartoonish, with confused narrative messages in conflict with his previous themes.  Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles returned to Zhang’s earlier (and, to me, much preferred) thematic style that concerns an ordinary individual’s attempt to find authentic engagement in a complex social environment.

As I have discussed earlier [1], Zhang’s early themes centered around an individual, often a woman, who struggles alone in an effort to find fulfilment in a traditional patriarchal society.  In this respect there were two stylistic approaches. 
  1. Carefully staged historical dramas set in richly atmospheric environments that exuded an expressionistic aura to the dramas.  These included Jú Dòu (1990), Raise the Red Lantern, (Dà Hóng Dēnglóng Gāo Gāo Guà, 1991), To Live (Huózhe, 1994), and Shanghai Triad (Yáo A Yáo, Yáo Dào Wàipó Qiáo, 1995). These films all featured Zhang’s artistic and romantic partner, Gong Li, as the protagonist.
  2. More open, naturalistic dramas set mostly in the present day and often featuring a mostly nonprofessional cast drawn from the contextual setting.  These include The Story of Qiu Ju (Qiū Jú Da Guān Sī, 1992), Not One Less (Yí Ge Dōu Bù Néng Shāo, 1999), The Road Home (Wŏ De Fù Qīn Mŭ Qīn, 1999), and Happy Times (Xìngfú Shíguāng, 2000).
Zhang’s second, more naturalistic, approach came to the fore after the breakup of his relationship with Gong Li [2], and Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles is a continuation of that second pattern.

While I criticize Hero and House of Flying Daggers for the artificiality of their stories, this is not to suggest that the structures of those narratives were too simple.  Quite the contrary, those films had highly convoluted narrative structures involving numerous cases of masked identity and narrative u-turns.  Nevertheless, the psychological believability of those films was minimal, and in each case the whole enterprise seemed to be almost a stunt.  Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, on the other hand, has a natural psychological motivation to it, but it still has a rather interesting narrative structure, too. 

What makes that narrative structure interesting in this case is that Zhang and his script writer, Zou Jingzhi, have woven the issue of authentic engagement (the always characteristic quest of Zhang’s protagonists) into and throughout the plot elements of the story.  This is a film about meaningful communication and how difficult it is to achieve, even with all the modern technical accoutrements available today to facilitate communication.

The story of Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles concerns an elderly Japanese man who travels to China in order to make a gesture of support for his seriously ill son, who is an academic specialist on Chinese folk art.  The protagonist father cannot speak a word of Chinese, and most of the Chinese people he encounters in the story cannot speak any Japanese.  So the problem of communication is an ever-present issue in this telling.  Incidentally, given the difficulties that the Japanese and Chinese have had with each other over the past century or so (and still have today), the concern here to bridge the two cultures is a background theme that may elude English-speaking audiences. 

As a matter of fact, some of the film was shot in Japan with a Japanese film crew, and the look-and-feel of the mise-en-scene of that portion is quite different from and less fluid (in fact more awkward and staged) than the main portion of the film shot in China.  In addition, the Japanese portion featured professional actors, while the Chinese portion featured nonprofessional actors, other than the visiting Japanese father.

The cast of the film included the following principal characters:
  • Gouichi Takata (played by veteran Japanese actor Ken Takakura) is the father who works  and lives alone as a fisherman on the Japanese seacoast.
  • Kenichi Takata (never shown), is the seriously ill son in the hospital.
  • Rie Takata (Shenobo Terajima), is Kenichi’s wife.
  • Li Jiamin (Li Jiamin – he plays himself) is a Chinese Nuo opera performer.
  • Lingo (Qiu Lin, he plays himself) is a local Chinese tour guide in Lijiang.  He knows almost no Japanese.
  • Jasmine (Jiang Wen, she plays herself) is a Chinese tour guide working for a travel agency.  She can speak Japanese.
  • Yang Yang (Yang Zhenbo) is the eight-year-old son of Li Jiamin.
The story of the film concerns Gouichi Takata’s (I will refer to him as Takata) quest to do something meaningful for his son.  But in fact his quest turns out to be five separate quests with specific goals, which make up the five acts of the narrative.  Each of these five quests fails to achieve it’s originally conceived goal, but it is up to the audience to decide what may have been achieved by the end of the film.  All the way through, we are dealing with the problems of communication, which the story delves into and examines.  After all, as the script wisely reveals, communication comprises several aspects:
  • the narrative context (which includes the narrative goals and the roles of the participating agents);
  • the specific roles of the given communicants;
  • the message (both how it is coded and how it is interpreted).
All these aspects appear in different guises as the individuals in this story attempt to achieve authentic engagement.  But making things even more difficult is the fact that Takata is an extremely taciturn man: even when he speaks with fellow Japanese people, he barely says anything and merely maintains a blank, stoic countenance no matter what is said to him.
Act 1: Takata in Japan (1-10 minutes into the film)
In the beginning, Takata travels from his fishing village to Tokyo to visit his estranged son, Kenichi,  whom he hasn’t seen for at least ten years and who is being treated in a hospital.  Thus the

Goal of Act 1: Takata to meet his ill son and somehow make amends for whatever is keeping them apart. Takata, in voiceover, alludes to something he has done in the past that offended Kenichi – apparently it was his decision to move to an isolated fishing village after the death of his wife.
When Takata arrives at the hospital, though, he finds that Kenichi, still harbors a grudge and refuses to see him.  Kenichi’s wife, Rie, is conciliatory, however, and wants the father and son to repair their relationship.  Hoping to help, she gives Takata a videotape of some hand-held film footage Kenichi had taken  that was used in a TV documentary covering Kenichi’s  academic studies of Chinese folk opera.  This one concerns Kenichi’s attempts to see the performance in southwest China of a traditional Nuo opera, “Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles”, which is a famous tale from the classic epic Romance of the Three Kingdoms about ancient China, in which the warrior Guan Yi makes a perilous solo journey to reunite with his warrior comrade Lord Liu Bei [3].  On this occasion Kenichi was unable to film the performance, because the lead performer, Li Jiamin, was hoarse and unable to sing.  So the documentary video shows Li Jiamin promising that if Kenichi returns on another occasion, he will be given an excellent performance of the opera.

Later Takata gets a phone call from Rie informing him of the crushing news that Kenichi has been diagnosed with liver cancer.
Outcome: goal not achieved and situation seems hopeless.
Act 2: Takata in Lijiang (10 - 27 mins)
Takata doesn’t want to give up, though, and is now looking for some gesture he can make for his son.  He comes up with a new goal:

Goal of Act 2: Takata to travel to Lijiang China and make a film recording of Li Jiamin performing the opera, “Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles”, which he can then give to his son so that he can complete his study.
Takata arrives in Lijiang and speaks with two tour guides, Jasmine and Lingo, who inform him that Li Jiamin has been imprisoned for criminally assaulting someone who made derogatory remarks about his own bastard son.  There are numerous communication problems here, since Takata is visiting a provincial village where only Jasmine speaks Japanese.
Outcome: failure to meet Li Jiamin in Lijiang
Act 3: Takata at Li’s Prison (27 - 48 mins)
Takata is stubbornly insistent on returning to Japan with something so he now comes up with another goal.
Goal of Act 3: Takata to go to Li’s prison and film his performance of the opera there.
It is not surprising that Takata is quickly rebuffed in his attempts to get inside the prison to film Li Jiamin.  Making matters worse is the fact that the only fluent Japanese interpreter, Jasmine, is now occupied with other touring assignments and so only the bumbling and nearly inarticulate Lingo is available to communicate Takata’s wishes to the officials. So Takata comes up with another means of communication.  He records a film of himself talking into the camera and tearfully pleading to the government authorities to let him make a film for his dying son.  Of course this is all in Japanese, so the preoccupied-by-day Jasmine is given a copy of the film to make a translation of the transcript and fax it back to Takata.  Then the film, with its Chinese-translated transcript, is shown to the prison authorities.  The emotive aspects of film communication do the job here, and the prison authorities are moved to grant Takata’s request to film Li Jiamin inside the prison.

However, when the arrangements are made and Li Jiamin is summoned to perform, he is unable to sing.  This time it is because he is grieving for his son (whom we later learn he has never seen).  Li Jiamin cries out that he missed and envies his son, because that boy, at least,
“can cry and say what he wants to say in public”. 
This, in fact, is one of the messages of the film.  It’s not so much a political complaint about official censorship as it is about the pervasive tendency in society to force us to mask our true feelings.  Only a child is not subject to that coercion.  So Takata’s quest is again stymied.
Outcome: failure to film Li Jiamin in prison.
Act 4: Takata in Stone Village (48 - 85 mins)
But Takata is stubborn.  He now decides to go to Li Jiamin’s native town, Stone Village, and bring the boy to the prison in an effort to cheer up Li Jiamin.  So he has a new subgoal in the service of his primary goal.
Goal of Act 4: Bring Li Jiamin’s son back to the prison so that Li Jiamin will be able to perform the Nuo opera.
Lingo now drives Takata in a tractor to the even more remote location of Stone Village, where communication is even more difficult. There are only Lingo and village people to talk to, and  cell phone communication (to speak with Rie and Jasmine) is only sometimes available.  Takata does manage to get a call from Rie, however, in which she informs him that she has told Kenichi about his attempts to film the opera in China and that Kenichi has been moved by the gesture.  She says  Kenichi exclaimed that it is the best thing his father has ever done for him.

Takata finds Li Jiamin’s son, Yang Yang, in the village, and after some negotiations manages to secure permission to take him back to Li Jiamin’s prison to see his father.  They all head back in the tractor towards Lijiang, but somewhere in the rugged limestone wilderness the tractor breaks down.  Yang Yang runs off and disappears into the craggy canyon landscape, and Takata heads out looking for the boy.

When Takata finally finds Yang Yang, he is faced with his most difficult communication problem yet.  There is no shared language, no cell phone communication, and not even a shared cultural understanding.  It is just an eight-year-old Chinese boy from the village with an elderly Japanese fisherman stuck together in the wilderness.  At this point, they are both lost and do not know how to find their way back to the truck, so the two of them look for shelter in the canyon.

But they do happen to find a way to communicatively understand each other.  It happens when Yang Yang runs off to find a place where he can privately evacuate his bowels.  Takata comes upon the boy and photographs him in the act while holding his nose from the stink.  This makes them both laugh, and they bond together.  Thus a visceral act that we all share (but hide from each other by convention) helps the two of them find a common ground and resulting communality. 

They now try other means of communicating with the outside world: Takata uses his camera flash to signal any potential rescuers of their location.  Then he and Yang Yang use his fishing boat whistle to make further loud auditory signals. 

Eventually, the two of the are rescued by the villagers.  But now Takata, sensitive to the feelings of his new friend, Yang Yang, realizes that the boy ran away because he doesn’t want to be reunited with a father he has never seen.  So in the interests of not wanting to coerce the boy into a potentially traumatic father-son confrontation, the now more sensitive Takata abandons his goal for Act 4 and decides to return to Lijiang without Yang Yang.
Outcome: failure to bring Yang Yang back to Li Jiamin.
Act 5: Return to Li Jiamin’s Prison (85 - 104 mins)
Takata now heads back from Stone Village to Lijiang with a new goal.
Goal of Act 5: go back to the prison to show Li Jiamin the photos he has taken of Yang Yang.
On his return Takata receives another call on his cell phone from Rie in Japan.  She informs him that Kenichi has died peacefully, and she recites to Takata some of his last words – he thanks his father for his supportive and heartfelt gesture and says that he, himself, was drawn to folk operas,
“because they mirror my life. . . .  I’ve come to realize that I am the actor behind the mask. . . . My true feelings have eluded me. . . I now see that loved ones should not mask their true feelings for one another.”
Now back at the prison, Takata shows Li Jiamin the photos he has taken of his son, Yang Yang, which brings the prisoner to tears again.  Unaware that the reasons for filming the opera are now gone, the prison officials and Li Jiamin insist on now giving Takata a really good performance.  So to please them, Takata silently assents and begins filming Li Jiamin singing and dancing in the role of Guan Yi as the film ends.
Outcome: Takata’s missions have all ostensibly failed, but his gesture was received by his son, and he has done something to meaningfully connect Li Jiamin and his own son, Yang Yang, together.

Communication is the real subject matter of this film, and attempts are made all along using various media to make contact:

  • Internal monologues.  As the center of focalization, we hear Takata in voiceover talking to himself.  Since his verbal communication with others is so minimal, this is a crucial  means to understand Takata, both for the audience and for Takata, himself.
  • Phones and faxes. Telephone and fax communication is used throughout the film. This is essential for Takata, because he needs to keep calling Jasmine so that he can use her as a translator between himself and Lingo. But as the action moves into more remote locations, cell phone communications become less of an option.
  • Signals. Takata and Yang Yang use the camera flash and the boat whistle to send signals to the outside world.  This is a desperate call of “I am here!”.  When he is finally driven away from Stone Village, Yang Yang signals to him from the rear with the boat whistle one last time.
  • Movies and photos. The film medium itself is a constant theme of communication. There is Kenichi’s own movie footage, which tells Takata something about his son.  Takata’s movie of himself provides a means of communicating his desire to film Li Jiamin to the prison officials. And Takata hopes to make a film of the Nuo opera that will communicate something to his son.  Movies can be crucial means of communication, but they always involve someone playing a role, and as Kenichi mentioned in his final letter, there is always the real person who may remain hidden behind the mask of the role player.
  • Physical gestures. In the end it was physical gesture of Takata jocular holding his nose between his thumb and forefinger that established a moment of emotional contact between himself and Yang Yang in the canyon.  Note that some of the most meaningful communicative acts in the film occur when various men (Takata, Li Jiamin, and Yang Yang) are shown wordlessly crying to express unconsciously their feelings.
The crucial role played by the physical gesture is an indication that embodied, physical closeness is essential for authentic interaction.  This is why Takata hugged Yang Yang before he departed.  And this is why we kiss the ones we love.  But in the final shot of the film, Takata is alone again on the shores of his Japanese seacoast.  There is noone with whom he can make this kind of intimate interaction.

  1. Hero, The Film Sufi, 3 October 2009, http://www.filmsufi.com/2009/10/hero-zhang-yimou-2002.html.
  2. Howard Feinstein, “Life After Gong Li”, The Guardian, 16 June 2000, http://www.theguardian.com/film/2000/jun/16/culture.features1/print.
  3. For further film reference to Romance of the Three Kingdoms, see my review of Red Cliff  (2008), http://www.filmsufi.com/2009/07/red-cliff-john-woo-2008.html.

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