'Miles': Journey of the Heart

Friday, October 20, 2006

"Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles" is the title of Zhang Yimou's film and the Chinese folk opera that becomes, for its central character, a noble obsession. When his dying son, Ken-ichi, refuses to speak with him, Gou-ichi Takata (Ken Takakura), a 60-ish Japanese man, is determined to make amends for the 10-year rift that led to this contretemps. Hearing that Ken-ichi is enamored of a Chinese opera singer and his rendition of the popular mask opera, Gou-ichi flies to China's Yunnan province to find Li Jiamin.

But Gou-ichi's plan to capture Li's performance on video, then deliver it to Ken-ichi, is derailed when he learns the singer (whose real name is Li Jiamin) has been jailed for three years. To film Li, Gou-ichi must take on the multi-headed monster of Chinese bureaucracy, negotiating with one official after another. With a professional interpreter (Jiang Wen) and her likable helpmate (Qiu Lin) as his allies, Gou-ichi embarks on his personal Odyssey.

Zhang, the assured Chinese filmmaker of "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers," has made a movie about sentiment -- the prospect of a father-son reunion -- but not a sentimental movie. The audience understands Gou-ichi's feelings for his son (who's always off-screen) by his tenacity, as he wins over each new bureaucrat and villager temporarily standing in his way. And when the Japanese father meets Li Jiamin's 8-year-old son, Yang Yang (Yang Zhenbo), we realize this is the beginning of the movie's real relationship. It's a masterful little film, and, thanks to Zhang's seasoned hands, it's subtly heartfelt but never manipulative.

-- Desson Thomson

Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles PG, 108 minutes Contains mildly disturbing themes of terminal illness. In Chinese and Japanese with subtitles. At the Avalon.

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