Written by: John White on January 30th, 2006
Theatrical Release Date: China/Hong Kong/Japan, 2005
Director: Zhang Yimou
Cast: Ken Takakura, Kiichi Nakai, Shinobu Terajima, Jiang We
DVD released: December 2005
Approximate running time: 104 mins
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 Widescreen presented
Sound: Dolby Digital 5.1
DVD Release: Zoke
Region Coding: Region 0 PAL
Retail Price: $11.95
One day a Japanese Fisherman, Takada, receives a call from his daughter in law to tell him that his estranged son, Kenichi, is very ill and hospitalised. He travels to Tokyo but on learning his father has arrived, the son says he will not see him. The son’s wife gives Takada a video that his son shot in China and asks him to watch. When he does so he sees that the son had tried to get a Chinese Opera singer called Li Jianmin to sing an opera called “Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles” but his sons fails and Li tells him to come again next year. Kenichi’s wife rings again and tells Takada that his son is terminally ill and Takada explains that he has travelled to China to find Li so that he can film him singing. Once there, Takada’s lack of Chinese and bureaucracy lead to him finding difficulty in completing his quest. However once Takada opens his heart his hosts are only too keen to help no matter how unusual his requests.
To say this film is different from Hero and House of Flying Daggers is redundant. Zhang Yimou has returned to the type of film he made before his two Wu Xia and it is a very welcome trip. Yimou has a gift for the simple poetry of people and their nobility that great as his two previous films were, his heart clearly lies here in this very sincere tale and it‘s ilk.
“Riding” is a film about communication, misunderstanding and cultural difference. Ken Takakura plays the fisherman as a simple man whose thoughts are internalised and who regrets his pride and his reserve, he also learns that his son is much the same. A large part of the film is spent on his Chinese tour guide and associated bureaucrats trying to discourage him from filming Li who has been arrested and is in prison. The Chinese operate as if Takada is a nosy troublemaker at first and only when he explains his desire to make things up to his son do they wholeheartedly support him. Once Takada meets Li he finds that Li is an estranged father like himself and he goes in search of Li’s son, Yang Yang. He finds the boy in rural China and experiences the great communal life of Yang Yang’s village where a fatherless son can be cared for by the village itself.
This is where the film goes into overdrive and the scenes with Yang Yang and Takada as the two get lost are some of the most touching that Yimou has filmed. Interestingly at this point of the film, the individualism of Takada stops the collectivism of the village from making Yang Yang see his father. This kind of comparison between Japanese culture and Chinese collectivism occurs throughout the film. Some may balk at the presentation of a Chinese prison as some kind of compassionate barracks but the point of this film is how barriers break down when people act from the heart and so the prison makes a kind of unlikely sense.
The film finishes in an extremely sad place and despite the joy Takada brings Li, his son never gets to see the film he has made. Takada finishes the film on his own staring out to sea. I love Yimou’s films and especially these pieces which are slight but universal and intimate. “Riding” is a great film for unforgiven fathers and silent sons. You should see it.
The Zoke disc is well presented but quite irritating with the forced adverts which occur before the menu for several minutes. The feature is presented in a letterboxed widescreen and the print has no imperfections that I can see. A future more mainstream release might lead to a warmer transfer but the one on this disc is exceedingly sharp. The 5.1 is presented in Japanese and Chinese with very good English subtitles which can be switched off.
The disc has several trailers on including some bizarre Chinese animation which made no sense to me.
This is a wonderful film and probably the highpoint of Ken Takakura’s film career. You will need to own a copy of this if you like previous Yimou classics like The Road Home or Not One less. This is my favourite film of this already marvellous year, you will find better discs of it once it is released in Japan, the US and in the UK but you won’t go too far wrong with this disc for a measly 12 bucks.