Review: Riding Alone For Thousands Of Miles
For some art house movie going experiences, the best part is not the movie itself but the process of visiting the cinema. In my life there have been a number of movie houses, like the Park in Palo Alto, CA and the Egyptian in Seattle, WA, that I've loved beyond measure because going there felt like an authentic intellectual experience. The Quad in the West Village is a bit like that. From the lobby's posters for Cinema with a capitol C to the train station boarding area feel to the theater entrances, it's the sort of space which cries out for bearded, elbow-patched pretentious dudes and subtitles galore. All of this movie geek atmosphere contributed immensely to my opinion of Riding Alone For Thousands of Miles, a movie I finally got around to seeing last weekend.
It's fitting in a way for me to see this movie at the Quad because Zhang Yimou's previous movies like Raise the Red Lantern and Ju Dou contributed greatly to my romanticizing of foreign cinema. As a member of the Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers—artists funded by the state but also critical of its hinderances on their product as it began to break out on the international stage—Zhang makes two types of movie, those that romanticize Chineseness and those that gently poke fun or criticize it. Riding Alone is the latter, a flick about the emotional aloofness of the Japanese and the comedy of errors that is trying to get anything done in China. A Japanese fisherman tries to reconnect with his terminally ill son by traveling to China to videotape a Chinese folk opera performer the academic son has been documenting. But of course, language difficulties, distance and the ridiculousness of government officials make this a much more difficult task than it should be.
This is I think the first movie of Zhang's where the intercession of modernity plays such a huge part in connecting people, and it's surely one of the subtler strokes in his thematic palette. His scenes of villagers tromping to rooftops in search of a signal for a cell phone conversation between the chief and a remote translator or the power conveyed through a deftly shot digital picture of a young child are really arresting. Sadly, the rest of the movie is not so gentle in communicating intended meaning. For a guy who's supposedly as taciturn as our protagonist Takata, he shouldn't have quite so much damn voice over. I completely got that the character would be thinking about his dying son as he holds the little lost son of the opera singer, Yang Yang, I didn't need to be told as much. It's surprising that Zhang would think it necessary, but maybe he's hoping for "dumb" audiences who embraced Hero, his bombastic color epic, to also jump on this bandwagon.
While I do enjoy Zhang in that over the top epic vein, it's nice to see him further exploring his potential as an art house director of small, character driven dramas after a spate of hugely popular blockbusters. This one may not be the best of his abilities but the fundamentals, from his signature lush photography to his knack for well chosen non actors, are definitely in place.