'Miles': Journey of the Heart

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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.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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