Of all Yimou Zhang’s films of the last decade, the best is Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles. For some strange reason, this movie never gained the traction that some of his other films have made. From the dramas of the early nineties (like Raise the Red Lantern and To Live) to the martial arts films of the 2000s (like House of Flying Daggers and Hero), Zhang’s popular films are well known. But a mid-2000s contemporary drama? Not as much. Ultimately, Zhang’s best work has been in period pieces. In Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, he has never been more modern.
This was actually the first Zhang film that I had ever seen. It came by means of recommendation from a friend of mine in Salt Lake City who works in the film industry. He actually gave me a stack of films to watch. Of all the films he gave, two have stuck with me the most, and these two made my top films list. These were Nicolas Philibert’s To Be and to Have and, of course, Yimou Zhang’s Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles. From there, my exposure to the beauty of Zhang’s directorial mastery only grew.
The movie is about an elderly fisherman who tries to gain his son’s forgiveness after years of emotional and social separation. When his wife died, years earlier, the fisherman had abandoned his boy in grief. Now, after hearing that his son is in terminal condition with cancer, he tries to visit him and make peace, only to be rejected. Somehow, this old man will resurrect his dead relationship with his boy, who is now a grown man with a family.
The source of this reconciliation lies in a concept of death transcendence that we all, regardless of race or culture, can understand. One of the key elements of personhood—which is the central emphasis of anthropology—is this concept of death transcendence. I didn’t discuss this particular element very much in my introduction to this section of reviews, but it bears mentioning here that one of the great unifying precepts of humanity is the inherent drive to somehow transcend mortality. We have seen in To Live and The Road Home how death is a natural element to any sort of humanist story. Yet, in both of these examples, Zhang points us, partly through his script but mostly through his particular attention to the rudimentary in his photography, to the fact that life is really about creating a way whereby we may live on in the hearts of those we love. We live on through places, things, and people by means of sympathetic magic, and the memories that are created through commensality and relationships.
In the case of the fisherman, he attempts to find reconciliation by completing his son’s unfinished work. Perhaps, by accomplishing this task, his son will find it in his heart to forgive him. Or, maybe, the reconciliation will only be unilateral. Either way, Zhang’s storytelling as the fisherman goes to great lengths to film a performance of the opera “Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles” is powerful and beautiful.
In order for the performance to happen, the fisherman has to convince a particular opera singer—the only opera singer that could qualify, given his son’s original intent—to perform. But, the opera singer is incarcerated, and cannot perform, even in prison, because his heart has broken because of his own separation from his own son. Here, we are given two stories, both involving a fractured father-son relationship, and both attempting to reunite that bond. The fisherman takes it upon himself to reunite the boy with his father, thereby empowering the father to perform “Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles.” The fisherman would then be able to complete his son’s work and rekindle the familial fire of love and trust with his dying child.
What ensues is not only heartwarming, but it is also a stunning take on Zhang’s understanding of the role-relationship dynamic in anthropological thought. In order for a father to be a father, that father must have a child. Both fathers in this story want to fulfill that role, but it requires a return of their lost child. In case of the main character, the main father, this severing of the role-relationship is his fault. He didn’t fulfill his role, and so the relationship was damaged. In order to get that back with his son, he must not only fulfill his duties as a father, but go above and beyond those duties to save “face.”
We may not understand everything about kabuki opera, and we may not quite appreciate its strangeness. We may not speak Chinese, and we may not agree with the decisions that these characters make. Yet, somehow, we fully understand what this father is going through, and the lengths that he is trying to go to obtain his son’s forgiveness. The most heartwarming part of this story is the new, surrogate relationship that this old man develops with the other man’s son, as he tries to bring this young boy back to his father and bring peace to their fractured family. The bond that develops between the little boy and the fisherman is one not unlike a grandfather and his grandson, meeting for the first time and finding that they really care for one another. It’s a beautiful sight, and, ultimately, it is the central premise of the story. Whether or not the man gets his son’s forgiveness, the man is brought back to a place where that father-son relationship is strong (even if that place is only temporary and only vicarious). In his attempts to film “Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles”, he is reconnected with those primary elements of his own personhood, and finds joy in his own grasp of immortality and death transcendence.