Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles

Josh Bell

It starts promisingly enough, with veteran Japanese actor Ken Takakura as Takata, a stoic Japanese fisherman who finds out that his estranged son is dying of cancer. Desperate to reconnect with the son who refuses to see him, Takata decides to travel to China to film a legendary opera singer his son was studying before falling ill. It seems like a straightforward task but becomes a comedy of errors, as the singer, Li Jiamin (playing himself), turns out to be in jail, and Takata also has to deal with bureaucratic red tape and unreliable interpreters.

What starts out as somber turns to sentimental, especially in the last half-hour or so, as Takata travels to a remote village and bonds with the 8-year-old illegitimate son of the imprisoned Li. The film’s messages about family are universal and hard to deny, and Takata’s desire to make things right with his son is affecting, particularly in his stilted phone conversations with his daughter-in-law. But every time that Takata comes to some understanding about his relationship with his son, Zhang has Takakura explain it in a voice-over that robs the drama of much of its quiet power. The confusion of a foreigner immersed in a land where he cannot speak the language is also somewhat difficult to convey to American audiences to whom both languages are foreign (and subtitled)—not that that’s Zhang’s fault, but it does mute some of the film’s impact.

The most frustrating thing about Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles (named after the opera Takata wants Li to perform) is that its relentless sentimentality soon turns disingenuous, and by the end it’s hard to believe that Takata has really connected with Li’s son in the way Zhang depicts it, or that he’s really learned how to have a meaningful relationship with his own son.

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