Year Released: 2006
Directed by: Zhang Yimou
Starring: Ken Takakura, Shinobu Terajima, Li Jiamin, Qui Lin, Jiang Wen, Yang Zhenbo
(PG, 108 min.)
"We make a living from what we get; we make a life from what we give." Winston Churchill
Don’t go rent this Zhang Yimou film expecting the epic beauty and proportions of his recent Hero or The House of Flying Daggers. But his latest minimalist work tells as much or more about quiet dignity and heroics than the two more lavish productions.
It is a simple tale of Gou-ichi Takata (Ken Takakura) a Japanese fisherman who learns that Ken-ichi, his estranged son is terminally ill. He travels with bullet train speed to the Tokyo hospital, only to be rebuffed, as his son refuses to see him. Rie, his sympathetic daughter-in-law who has initiated the futile visit, gives him a videocassette of his son’s work.
The cassette is Ken-ichi’s interview with Li Jiamin, a classic performer of ancient Chinese Opera in the remote Hunan Province. On film Ken-ichi promises to return next year to hear the legendary singer perform “Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles,” a part, the not unduly modest Li says, that no other performer can equal.
On impulse, the bereft father decides that he will go to China and videotape Li Jiamin ‘s performance as a final gift to his son. With the aid and efficiency of Jasmine, his Chinese translator, Mr. Takata finds the remote folk opera company, but it is sadly without its star, who is now serving three years in prison. Despite assurances that a replacement could easily fill in – what with the elaborate masks and the stylized singing, who would know the difference -- Mr. Takata is adamant about having Li Jiamin and Li Jiamin only perform the lead.
Thus begins Takata’s second long journey, a visit to the distant prison where he hopes to gain permission to film the incarcerated thespian. Jasmine, his earlier translator, cannot accompany him, but one of Li Jiamin’s fellow performers. Lingo, knows some Japanese and volunteers to take Mr. Takata on his quest. Unfortunately, Lingo’s name does not match his linguistic skills, and it is his enthusiasm rather than his Japanese that propels them forward. Much of the time, the two have to call Jasmine and have her translate via Mr. Takata’s cell phone.
But alas, Mr. Takata and Lingo run into more than linguistic obstacles. As one would imagine, filming inside a Chinese prison poses more than a few bureaucratic restrictions, especially for a foreigner. And it turns out that the gifted Li Jiamin has an artistic disposition and is unable to perform even when Mr. Takata gets his hard won permission to do so. When the Japanese visitor finds out this Chinese parent also has an estranged son, albeit one only aged eight, he does what he thinks he must and journeys to the distant Stone Village to find the young boy and bring him to visit his father.
Part of what makes this simple tale resonate is the emotional honesty, whether it is the restrained pain that lies beneath Takata’s stoic features, or the fluid tears and sobbing of his more demonstrative Chinese counterpart. The rather simple tale gains more dimension with the layered texture of its structure. First of all, we have a play within a play, a journey to film an opera about still another journey.
And there are some surprises as well. For all its existential trappings – man cut off from fellow man, Takata as the lost stranger in exile, and even an audience that must go through in some cases three translations before it knows what is being said – there is as much hope as angst. Yes, the illegitimate Yang Yang has lost his mother, but the entire village has taken his upbringing upon themselves. And Mr. Takata is not dependent upon but certainly touched by the kindness of strangers, as Lingo, Jasmine, and the entire Stone Village take on his quest as their own.
Also surprising is the use of technology. In this film cell phones, videotapes, cameras are not the usual impersonal instruments of man’s dehumanization, but links that connect. It is his videotaped plea and not his personal one that persuades the prison board to grant Mr. Takata’s request, the impersonal video camera allowing him to express the grief he could not do in person. Cell phones allow Jasmine to translate from great distances, and the regular calls from Japan apprise Mr. Takata on the condition of his son.
Yes, this sparse tale is not for everyone. It is filled with futile hopes, small surprises, dead ends, and unexpected turns that take us a long way to come a short distance. But it is a journey the discriminating filmgoer should not miss.
One of the happiest scenes in Riding alone for Thousands of Miles is the great banquet the whole of Stone Village throws for Mr. Takata. The tiled roofs frame cobbled streets that wind beneath them, now filled with improvised tables piled high with delectable morsels. The exuberant villagers feast upon dainty pastries, spicy meats, and slippery noodles caught between their chopsticks. It is a rare moment of joy lighting the darkness of a dutiful homage. That these total strangers show such loving kindness is not lost on Mr. Takata.
Create your own reason for a similar feast, featuring this wonderful recipe for Hunan Orange Beef. And cook up some Chinese Dumplings as well as Szechuan Noodles to go along with it. Perhaps you can top it off with some Lotus Seed Mooncakes.
Hunan Orange Beef
Made with dried orange peel, this spicy dish is from the Hunan region. Feel free to deep-fry the beef twice if desired to make it extra crispy. Serves 3 - 4.
3/4 pound flank steak
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 egg white
2 teaspoons cornstarch
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
2 tablespoons dark soy sauce
1 tablespoon Chinese rice wine or dry sherry
2 teaspoons Ketchup
a few drops sesame oil
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper, or to taste
1 fresh orange, including the peel
1 1/2 teaspoons granulated sugar
2 slices ginger
2 cloves garlic
2 green onions
2 medium celery ribs
Oil for deep-frying and stir-frying
6 dried red chili peppers
Cut the flank steak across the grain into thin strips. Add the salt, egg white and cornstarch. Marinate the beef in the refrigerator for 1 hour.
Complete the next three steps while the beef is marinating.
To prepare the sauce, in a small bowl combine the light and dark soy sauce, rice wine or sherry, ketchup, sesame oil and white pepper.
Squeeze the juice from the orange and add to the sauce, along with the sugar. Set aside.
Remove all white pith from the orange peel. Cut the peel into thin strips. Peel and mince the ginger and garlic. Wash the green onions and cut on the diagonal into 1-inch pieces. String the celery and cut into 1-inch pieces on the diagonal.
Heat the wok over high heat. Add oil for deep-frying and heat to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. When the oil is ready, add the beef. Deep-fry on both sides until it changes color and is nearly cooked. Remove and drain on paper towels.
Add the celery and submerge briefly in the hot oil (the celery should not be in the hot oil for more than a few seconds). Remove and drain on paper towels.
Remove all but 2 tablespoons oil from the wok. Add the dried chili peppers and the orange peel. Stir-fry briefly until the chilies darken, then add the minced ginger and garlic. Stir-fry briefly until aromatic. Stir in the green onion.
Push the vegetables up to the side of the wok. Add the sauce in the middle. Add the beef back into the pan. Heat through and serve hot.
Recipe Source: Rhonda Parkinson