It was bound to happen sooner or later, but the once-young whippersnappers of Chinese cinema, the so-called "Fifth Generation" led by directors Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, have become the old guard they used to rebel against. No film shows this more clearly than Zhang's latest, "Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles," a terribly sentimentalized account of a Japanese father's quest to understand what captured the interest and imagination of his estranged son. The father, Gou-ichi (played by Yakuza movie legend Ken Takakura, for whom Zhang wrote the script), lives in solitary sadness in a remote fishing village. The son, Ken-ichi (Kiichi Nakai), is dying and daughter Rie (Shinobu Terajima) plays the weepy go-between, which is just the beginning of the film's stark emotional manipulations.
Zhang has trodden this path before, as in "The Road Home," another odyssey involving a father and a son. He's recently shown signs that his filmmaking desires lay elsewhere, veering into a glossy brand of magical-mystery martial arts with the spectacular "Hero" and the increasingly torpid "House of Flying Daggers," though it seemed his heart wasn't really in this hallowed genre. What's strange about the new film is that his heart doesn't seem to be in this, either, starting with the odd strategy of telling a tale set mostly in China from a non-Chinese perspective.
Just the strain of getting Gou-ichi from his village to Tokyo (where a bitter Ken-ichi spurns him) to Yunan Province carries diminishing returns. Once Gou-ichi views a videotape of an interview with a master Chinese opera performer made by Ken-ichi as part of his research as a Tokyo University Chinese folklore professor, the normally reclusive Gou-ichi is suddenly inspired to journey into extremely foreign territory – without connections or knowing a word of the language – to record the artist's performance for Ken-ichi's enjoyment. His subsequent trip is a chain of obstacles, from faulty translators to the performer himself, Li Jiamin (playing, in effect, himself), now in prison for attempted murder.
It doesn't stop there. During his quest, Gou-ichi learns of Li's separation from his own son, Yang Yang (Yang Zhenbo), which inspires the old man to find the boy and bring him to meet his father in prison. "Riding Alone" is profoundly troubled by Zhang's apparent distrust that his themes are getting through to the viewer, and his need to repeat them: It's not enough that Gou-ichi's own trek effectively expresses the idea that it's never too late for a father to reconcile with – and understand – his son. Li's performance, from which the film takes its title, is based on a classic opera about a king's self-sacrificing journey to aid a friend, and, to make things absolutely clear, Li's and Yang Yang's alienation neatly matches Gou-ichi's and Ken-ichi's.
This is not storytelling by a confident artist. Even Zhang's former mastery of visual form has become shaky, with a pedestrian handling of dramatic scenes and a surfeit of picture-postcard landscape shots. At one time, when Zhang was where the "Sixth Generation" is now today, the previous sentence would have been unthinkable. Grade: C
• Rated PG for mild thematic elements.