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By Phil Hall | August 25, 2006

Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou has created so many memorable films (most recently the wuxia double-play “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers”) that one can easily excuse his new clinker “Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles.”

The film opens in northern Japan with the taciturn fisherman Takata (Ken Takakura) learning that his estranged son is in a Tokyo hospital. Arriving to see his son after no contact in 10 years, he learns his son does not wish to see him. However, his daughter-in-law gives Takata a videotape his son made the previous year in China. Takata’s son is a filmmaker with an interest in Chinese opera, and in the tape he has an interview with a legendary actor who is supposed to sing the song “Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles” from the classic production “Romance of the Three Kingdoms.” However, the actor begs off from performing, citing a cold, and Takata’s son promises on the tape to return again to videotape the performance.

Somewhat illogically, Takata decides to go to China to videotape the actor’s performance for his ailing son. There is a problem, however: the actor is serving a three-year prison sentence for assault and the Chinese authorities rarely allow outsiders to visit their prisons (let alone with a video camera).

At no point in the China portion of “Ridin Alone for Thousands of Miles” does the film make any sense. In fact, the movie plays more like a goofy travelogue showing China as an eccentric but happy country. The prison sequences look rather suspect, complete with an auditorium featuring a disco ball and a warden with an uncommon humanitarian concern for his prisoners. Likewise, an extended journey into the countryside is a little too bucolic for credibility purposes (particularly with a group of zany village elders who don’t seem aware there’s a Communist government running their country). Chinese bureaucrats are shown as being very busy but having hearts of gold while foreigners are allowed unparalleled access across the country. Yeah, just like real life!

Takakura, who is billed in the film’s press notes as Japan’s answer to Clint Eastwood, spends a lot of time in silent contemplation. Unlike Eastwood’s steely enigmatic gaze, Takakura seems dyspeptic and annoyed – not unlike an impatient Moe Howard waiting for the inevitable chaos from Larry and Curly.

Crisp cinematography by Zhao Xiadong and an intelligent musical score by Guo Wenjing offer a visual and aural balance to the otherwise silly and maudlin story and Zhang’s off-key direction. Chinese movie completists may wish to add this to their viewing list, but everyone else should ride off in the opposite direction.

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