Front-loaded with family discord, terminal cancer, prodigal jailbait, a cute kiddie looking for love, and other accessories of the ready-to-wear soap opera, Zhang Yimou’s Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles is as heartfelt, sincere, and soggy with nostalgia as some of his other periodic homages to the virtues of peasant life in the backwaters of China. Coming off the visceral House of Flying Daggers and Hero, this new film, which wears its heart on its sleeve along with its dewy populism, is slow and pretty and duller than you’d hope for from an art-house sophisticate like Zhang. The early flirtation with a promising idea—”backward” China’s tense history with high-tech Japan—soon falls away to reveal a fatally reverential vehicle for veteran Japanese actor Ken Takakura and the greater glory of the post-Mao proletariat.
Not for nothing is Takakura known as the Asian Clint Eastwood. As Gou-ichi Takata, a lonely old man sitting out his declining years in a Japanese fishing village, he barely lifts an eyebrow, even when his character tries to register the illness of a faraway son he hasn’t spoken to in years. The source of their rift is one of the few things that go unexplained in a movie that leaves little else to our imagination. Distraught over his son’s refusal to receive him in person, Takata sets off for the wilds of rural China. There he will retrace the steps of a fruitless journey his son has recently taken in search of a performance of the titular classic Chinese opera, whose feckless star, Li Jiamin (playing himself), now languishes in prison. Armed with a pretty interpreter and a homely guide—one sweetly wise, the other sweetly incompetent —the old man drives through ravishing countryside, running into obediently colorful characters and meaningful parallels that serve to reveal what matters in life, namely loyalty to family and kindness to others.
Born in 1950, Zhang grew up in the shadow of Mao, and though his country movies frequently extol the tenacious survival skills of peasant communities devastated by the cruelties of the Cultural Revolution, they never fully break free of that period’s loopy idealization of the agrarian life. Riding Alone patronizes the rural poor by conflating simplicity with simple-mindedness and reducing them to binary oppositions—the prison administrator who reveals the softie within; the village elder who’s clumsy with a cell phone but knows from collective responsibility; the convict who grows up in a hurry; and the aging Japanese inscrutable, who experiences less a spiritual rebirth than a Great Leap Forward. As a cri de coeur from an urban intellectual, perhaps himself conflicted by individual success and yearning to express the collective consciousness that was bred into the bone of his generation (however energetically they’ve tried to shed it), the movie is strangely flat. Beautifully photographed by Zhao Xiaoding, Riding Alone dutifully offers up the expected scenic pleasures—the majestic sweep of a mountain range, the brightly colored abundance of a village feast. Zhang has said that he “wanted the look of a still-life painting.” Instead, he has sent us a fancy little postcard.