Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles

5th Avenue Cinema is set to open its digital screenings for winter term this weekend with Zhang Yimou’s 2005 film Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles.

Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles is the story of Gouichi Takata (played by Ken Takakura) and his journey to mend his relationship with his son Kenichi. The two have been estranged since the death of Kenichi’s mother and Kenichi now refuses to meet with his father. When Takata learns his son is dying of liver cancer, he vows to fix things. In his son’s place, he travels to China to record Nuo opera artist Li Jiamin perform the play Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles. It is his hope that recording this performance will allow his son to finally forgive him before it is too late.

Gouichi travels to China only to learn that Li is currently serving a prison sentence for attacking a man. He must fight a bureaucratic system to receive permission to enter the prison and record Li’s performance. Upon entering the prison and scheduling Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, Li is unable to sing. Separation from his son Yang Yang, whom he has never met, has driven him to depression. Gouichi decides he must fetch the boy from his village and bring him back to the prison to meet his father.

It’s a sweet film with sincerely touching moments between a father looking to resolve long-term problems with his son and a young boy bent on not meeting his father. The most moving scene surprisingly involves an outdoor pooping photo session (no spoilers here, you can take this out of context until you see it).

Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles is overtly sentimental, but it’s consciously aware of this. Gouichi is silently solemn for most of the film, but voiceovers conveniently peel back his thick exterior to share how exactly he feels with the audience. It’s a very forward “tell rather than show” method. Normally having narrative exposition explain exactly what the character is thinking and feeling at any given moment might bring up painful flashbacks to the theatrical edition of Blade Runner but it works surprisingly well here.

Perhaps you can credit it to the charm of blatantly embracing sentimentality and wearing its heart on its sleeve. On the surface it seems corny—because it absolutely is—but that doesn’t necessarily have to be a negative thing. When a film is self-aware enough to consciously embrace corniness on this level, it doesn’t make one cringe as much as it just makes the pill that much easier to swallow.

But like anything sweet, it can be overwhelming and stomach turning in abundance. And there definitely is an abundance of sap here. Gouichi is conveniently surrounded by supportive and helpful people at every turn in his journey. His translators work for free to help him bring the boy back to his father. Later, an entire village rallies behind him. Hell, an entire prison (guards and warden included) is brought to tears when he shows Li photos of his Yang Yang.

It all might seem like a bit much at times, but it has a soft heart that bravely exposes itself for all to see. If you’ve been feeling beaten down by midterms or gloomy from the weather, this might be the best time, and reason, to give “Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles” a shot.

5th Avenue Cinema is free for Portland State students, $3 for other students and seniors, $4 general admission. Digital screenings are free for all attendees.

5th Avenue Cinema will continue its winter digital screen schedule with Persistence of Vision on Saturday, February 6 at 7:30 p.m.