Killer Imports: Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles

Killer Imports is a regular feature on Film Junk where we explore foreign-language films from around the world that haven’t yet had their chance to shine.

Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles is not the kind of movie you would expect to be reviewed in a column called Killer Imports. It has no violence of any kind. It has no action scenes. It has no fighting except for verbal pleading that’s done in a loving way. After a while, RATM had me thinking about similarities it had with Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino. I’ll get to this later.

The director, Zhang Yimou, had been known for his dramas with vivid cinematography like Raise the Red Lantern. And then he directed two martial arts films that won the praise of many with Hero being in my top 10 films of all time. RATM was a return to telling a simple character drama. His latest career accomplishment was directing the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics.

When I first saw RATM, I knew that there would be no martial arts, but I was still in the mood for action. So I wasn’t won over after I watched it. Several months ago, I bought the Sony Pictures version of the film to compare it with the bootleg I had bought earlier. But I could never find the incentive to re-watch it. Having recently become the owner of a big screen plasma television, I decided to take a quick look at RATM on my big screen. Well, the drama drew me in, and I ended up watching the entire film. (FYI, the North American release and the Asian version of the film are the same.)

Before I get into RATM, I found it strange that the Sony DVD cover didn’t mention Hero at all. On the cover, there is “From the director of The Road Home and Raise the Red Lantern”. And after a plot synopsis on the back cover, there is “From the acclaimed director of House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower”. Now I can understand the cover blurb because the two films mentioned are reflective of the type of film that RATM is, but Hero got more praise than either of the two films mentioned on the back cover.

(BTW, I adore The Road Home. Ziyi Zhang may have something to do with my adoration. I think it’s the greatest love story ever told. And there’s not one kiss in the film. Or even holding of hands!)

RATM is about an old Japanese man who is estranged from his dying son. To make amends, he decides to go to China to film an opera that his son had attempted to film. That’s basically it. The name of the opera is Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles and is a famous Chinese opera based on a story of folklore about brotherly love and loyalty. The opera mirrors the father’s love and loyalty that he demonstrates by his actions in the film. But the title also describes the journey that the old Japanese man takes within China.

The movie gets its dramatic thrust from the difficulties that the man encounters while he is in China. The man doesn’t speak Chinese, so he depends on a hired translator. Everything in the film seems natural, and there aren’t any forced coincidences to drive the story along. The man handles each difficulty as you or I might expect.

Normally when I’m watching a non-action film, I need a drop-dead gorgeous female protagonist to keep me interested. Sometimes a beautiful dog will do. (And when I say “dog,” I’m speaking of the four-legged variety.) But RATM managed to keep me interested with a straight-forward narrative that kept me involved in wondering how the story would end. Sometimes I get in a contemplative mood, so the somewhat languid pace of RATM upon second viewing was not a problem. The film even made me shed a tear or two.

The Japanese man is portrayed by Japanese star, Takakura Ken, who plays the Japanese man with restrained dignity typical of Asian males who learn to hide their emotions. He was in Ridley Scott’s Black Rain. He became prominent in yakuza films of the 1960’s. To be honest, he looks vaguely familiar, but I haven’t seen that much Japanese cinema. (I think the only Japanese actor I know by name is Toshiro Mifune.) He is one of the few professional actors in the film! I wasn’t distracted by the non-actors in Gran Torino, and I wasn’t distracted by the non-actors in this film. Zhang Yimou has a history of discovering talent and using non-actors in his films. So far, I’m unaware of any of his movies being criticized for this. Rather, his non-actors seem to get praise.

Unlike Gran Torino’s main protagonist, the Japanese man is not racist at all. He provides a voice-over narration, so we are privy to his innermost thoughts. Like Blade Runner, I think the film would work without the narration, but I don’t think RATM is meant to be ambiguous in any way, so the narration serves its purpose to clarify how this journey among the Chinese people is affecting him.

For those who don’t know, there is a certain enmity between the Japanese and Chinese with the Japanese invasion of China during the Second World War being the most recent source of hatred. Some older Chinese martial arts movies like Bruce Lee’s Chinese Connection occasionally have Chinese and Japanese schools fighting each other. Zhang Yimou doesn’t address this conflict at all. Instead, through the hospitality and kindness of the Chinese to the Japanese man, he gains a deeper appreciation for family and in turn, tries to help a Chinese man and his son.

There is one amazing but simple scene that I won’t ruin for you. I’m not even sure if you would find it amazing. It’s not even at the climax. There’s also another scene I won’t even bother saying anything more about for propriety reasons. You may have seen something like this on YouTube, but this is a mainstream movie!

One of the simple things shown in this film is something I’ve never seen on film before. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve seen this in real life either, but I’m almost sure this happens. A man cries with mucus running from his nose. I’m not talking about a few drips or even a trail. I’m talking a lot of mucus. The man was blubbering. Now I don’t think this was a special effect. And I’m not sure if the man was an actor. I’d be impressed if an actor could blubber like this on cue.

Although portions of the film were shot in remote locations in China, Zhang Yimou doesn’t spend very much time admiring the scenery, and so the movie only occasionally left me being impatient. Even the obligatory Chinese opera scenes were bearable.

I’m not one to be able to detect a director’s visual style, so I would not have guessed that this film was directed by the man who directed Hero. If you want to watch another film like Hero, then don’t watch RATM. But if you want to watch a film about the importance of family without exactly spelling out why it’s important, then I recommend RATM. I’ll even add that if you hated Gran Torino, then maybe you’ll hate RATM for its straight-forward message. And if you haven’t seen Hero, then watch it now! (Be aware, there are several movies called Hero. Even several Asian movies. Make sure you watch the one starring Jet Li.)

In 2006, the San Diego Film Critics Society Awards awarded RATM as the Best Foreign Language Film and Ken Takakura as Best Actor. In 2007, the Hong Kong Film Awards awarded RATM as Best Asian Film. RATM was released on DVD on February 6th, 2007 in North America by Sony Pictures Classics.

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  • Fabulous call Reed. I remember seeing this a few years back and falling in love with the cinematography and the quiet power of the film. If I’m not mistaken, there were even tears at the closing scene.

    Again, kudos from shinning the spotlight on a great film.

  • joe

    Yea, this is a good one. I like it about as much as Yimou’s other works, if not better. Curse of the Golden Flower was a bit too slow feeling, even though it has a little more action than RATM. But RATM feels much better paced. Maybe because you’re expecting it to be a drama. He always gives great visuals though, no matter the subject or setting.

  • Thx for your comments, Marina and joe! I thought I might have chosen something too obscure again for Film Junk tastes, and something of not much interest.

    joe, I agree with your comment about CGF. I think the more intimate story of RATM made it more compelling.