Returning to a sentimental mode, Zhang Yimou brings us Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, a hard-to-resist emotional journey graced with near-epic visual appeal and subtle lost-in-translation humor. Legendary Japanese actor Ken Takakura plays Mr. Takata, a stoic father on a mission for his estranged, terminally-ill son.
Takata learns that his son, Kenichi, once expressed a desire to hear the "mask opera" song "Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles." One singer, Li Jiamin, had claimed to be the best to perform it, so Takata sets out to China with a camcorder to videotape the song for his son. Upon reaching Yunnan Province, Takata realizes that-to restore his own relationship--he may have to reunite another father-son pair: Li Jiamin and his eight-year-old son Yang Yang.
For Li, as its turns out, is serving a three-year prison sentence for drunken assault. If he's to stick to his plan, Takata will have to convince the authorities to let a foreigner into their prison, a tall order, and convince Li to sing: a task that may require the assistance of Yang Yang. In the boy and the old man, we see the honest bonding of a son who cannot reach his father and a father who cannot reach his son.
The intriguing story develops into a sort of spiritual adventure, with Zhang allowing us into Takata's thoughts. "I don't know what's out there, and I'm not good with people," he thinks, but he resolves nevertheless to pursue the song for his son. The message is unmistakeable: lonely, bottled-up men secretly wish to express their feelings. The desire for familial reconciliation must first cross through personal improvement, emblematized by the Chinese prison chant "Reform our ways! Redeem ourselves! Become new people!"
The mask opera is also a neat symbol of the characters' emotional isolation and retreat from reality (at one point, Yang Yang even creates a makeshift mask, an image that recurs). The pivotal song tells the tale of Lord Guan, a man whose own redemptive journey involved traveling thousands of miles to help a friend. Takata proves likewise persistent—and therefore lovable despite his stoicism—crossing borders and attempting to overcome translation issues.
While his film tugs the heartstrings, Zhang resists making the characters' redemption too easily restorative. This thousand-mile ride may be simple in essence, but it's never less than involving.
The sole extra—"The Making of Zhang Yimou's 'Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles'" (18:37)—features cheesy, propagandistic narration (oddly, the English is subtitled along with everything else). Despite the featurette's EPK aesthetic, the content gives a good feel for the behind-the-scenes process and offers interview segments with director Zhang; star Takakura; first-time screen actors Yang Zhenbo, Terajima Shinobu, Qiu Lin, Jiang Wen, and He Zezhou; assistant directors Wu Xiguo and Fu Lulu; producer Zhang Zhenyan; editor Cheng Long; and production manager Pu Lun.
It's nice to see Takakura cutting up, but the choicest moment goes to wee Yamg Zhenbo, who explains, "I always run incorrectly. I have to run around four to five times. I learned how to cry. Laughing. And not to cry nor to laugh." The disc includes previews of The Italian, Driving Lessons, Curse of the Golden Flower, Who Killed the Electric Car?, Sketches of Frank Gehry, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, Joyeux Noël, and House of Flying Daggers.