Renowned Japanese actor Ken Takakura is all the reason you need for watching Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles (2005). In the film written specifically for him, Ken plays the aged Takata in a role that’s sweet and memorable in a film that’s neatly wrapped and topped with a dainty bow. While the ending can be seen from a mile away, Takata’s journey is one that will that will bring laughter and tears as the story unfolds.
After the death of his wife, Takata escaped to a remote fishing village, thus damaging his relationship with his son. When Takata discovers his son is dying, he goes to see him only to be turned away. Takata’s daughter-in-law then provides him with a video so he can understand his son, sending him on a journey through China to find famed Nuo Opera performer Li Jiamin (played by himself), and ultimately through remote locations of China to locate Li’s illegitimate son Yang Yang (Yang Zhenbo). On his journey, Takata’s adventure comes full circle to put a soft punctuation point on his life.
Riding Alone refers to the performance Li Jiamin was to put on for Tanaka’s son. The show is an allusion to the story presented in The Romance of Three Kingdoms where Guan Yu took a solo journey to reunite with his brother Liu Bei. In the film, Takata is a modern-day Guan Yu taking a journey to reunite with his son, and to reunite another man with his son. While Takata doesn’t have any godly powers, it’s clear his story is meant to mimic that presented in Guan Yu’s tale; it does so beautifully.
Ken Takakura shines in his role. As the film unfolds, you see him as a hurt man still yearning his for wife and wanting to show his son how much he cares about him, to someone who is warm, kind, and willing to do anything to prove how much he loves the people around him. Ken has always been great at playing complex, multi-faceted roles, and his role in Riding Alone is no exception.
Takakura really does get lost in the role to where it’s easy to think of Takata as a real person and not a character. The way he interacts with people on his journey is authentic and warm, painting a rosy picture of a man trying to scoop up the pieces of his life. At the same time, he interacts well with the scenery presented in the film to make Takata seem much bigger than he is in a film filled with grandeur.
The grandeur does provide some issues since it seems the director, Zhang Yimou, seems to present an idealist view of China with open spaces, painted skies, and beauty everywhere the light can touch. The scenery fits in with the film and writing, although it feels inauthentic to never come across as anything other than sprawling landscapes. However, it’s great to be acquainted with the beauty in Japan and China as it is instrumental in latter scenes of Riding Alone.
For the most part, Riding Alone is a serious film, but it has moments of lighthearted humor. Takata and Yang Yang have a cute relationship that feels more grandfather-grandson than complete strangers. Then there’s the poor guide Qui Lin (as himself) and the running joke of his poor Japanese. These moments add to the charm of the film and are worth the lookout for them.
While the parallels of Riding Alone are a highlight and great fodder for a melodrama, how full-circle and neatly packed the film is may bother some viewers. The hints of conflict that exist feel thrown in to close the plot more than to push the story too, much like the scene where Yang Yang runs away. The conflict and the way everything ends too perfectly can feel like hiccups, but it’s no different than some TV dramas available.
Riding Alone is a sweet film with great characters despite its flaws. Ken Takakura is truly the soul of the film, especially since the role was written for him. Ken earns a 5/5 for performance, while Riding Alone earns a 3/5 overall.