Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles: Yimou’s Tale of One Man’s Epic Journey

From three-time Oscar-nominated director Zhang Yimou comes a moving story of one man’s journey across Chinas heartland, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles.

The film stars the legendary actor Ken Takakura, and Japanese stars Shinobu Terajima and Kiichi Nakai.

Gou-ichi Takata (Takakura). for the first time in years, takes the bullet train to Tokyo from the quiet fishermans village where he lives on the northwest coast of Japan. His daughter-in-law, Rie (Shinobu Terajima) telephones to tell him that his son, Ken-ichi (Kiichi Nakai) is seriously ill, and asking for his father.

But when he arrives in the city, Takata finds that Rie was not entirely truthful: Ken-ichi has been hospitalized, but after years of painful estrangement, he still refuses to see Takata. Crushed, the old man quietly slips out of the hospital, but not before Rie gives him a videotape to watch.

Rie hopes that what Takata sees on the tape will help him get to know his son again. Takata plays the tape and learns that Ken-ichi is studying a form of Chinese folk drama that dates back more than a thousand years. Ken-ichi had traveled all the way to Yunnan Province in Southern China to see the famous actor LI Jiamin perform, but the actor was ill and unable to sing.

Li promised to sing the legendary song Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles from the literary classic,”Romance of the Three Kingdoms” for Ken-ichi if he returns to Yunnan the following year. Hoping to bridge the gap between himself and his son, Takata decides to find Li Jiamin and videotape his performance for the dying Ken-ichi.

As the old man begins an odyssey into the heart of China, he encounters a number of strangers who color his journey — from well-meaning translators who guide him through Chinas idiosyncrasies, to prison wardens anxious to promote Chinese culture abroad, to a young runaway with a complicated father-son relationship of his own. What Takata discovers on his journey is kindness and a sense of family he thought he had lost long ago.

Zhang Yimou returns to his trademark understated storytelling for his newest film. “Riding Alone” is a quiet tale, which Zhang created with the films lead actor in mind. I have always wanted to work with Ken Takakura, says the Oscar-nominated director, I started writing this script five years ago. It is tailor-made for him. If Takakura didnt like the story, muses Zhang, I would have started again from scratch.

For Ken Takakura, there was never any question of not liking the idea. The actor, often dubbed Japans answer to Clint Eastwood on account of his silent charisma, accepted the role of Takata after a three-year break from acting. This is a brand new type of role for me, explains the actor, Takata is very different to the characters I have played in the past.

This is also the first time Takakura has performed alongside non-professional actors in a career spanning over forty years. The first-time actors give me a fresh perspective on acting, says Takakura, They express themselves so naturally.

Zhang Yimou, on the other hand, has a long and thriving history of working with first-time actors. As with previous projects such as “Not One Less,” Zhang scoured China for the perfect individuals to bring his characters to life. Nine-year-old Yang Zhenbo was chosen from seventy thousand children who auditioned for the role, and Li Jiamin, who plays the opera singer was singled out from over seven hundred hopefuls.

For Li, whose Beijing Opera experience dates back thirty years, “Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles” has renewed his love for performance. I would definitely act again if the right opportunity arises, says Li, Learning from Zhang Yimou and Ken Takakura has been an incredible experience. Japanese star Shinobu Terajima agrees I cant ask for anything more than working with such cinematic giants, she says, They are the reasons why I accepted the role of Rie.

The lyrical tale about one mans journey gives nod to one of the Chinas literary classics, the story of “Riding Alone” from Romance of the
Three Kingdoms. The mighty general Guan Yu became a symbol of loyalty when he refused titles and riches to ride thousands of miles in order to help a friend. This is a story about human relationships, says Zhang of his film. His close-knit crew agrees: one production assistant has stated: It is the respect and friendship between Zhang Yimou and Ken Takakura that brings this film to life.

Ken Takakura

Ken Takakura, known affectionately as Ken-san, was born in Fukuoka Prefecture in 1931. A graduate of the prestigious Meiji University in Japan, Takakura began his acting career at the age of 24 with the Toei Company. There, he played a wide variety of roles before establishing his screen image as the chivalrous loner in films such as Nihon Kyokaden, Abashiri Prison and the Showa Zankyoden series.

Hollywood began to take notice, and in 1970, Takakura made his Hollywood debut in Robert Aldrichs Too Late the Hero. This followed in 1975 with the Warner Bros “The Yakuza,” in which Takakura plays a dangerous ex-yakuza opposite Robert Mitchum.

By the time he left the Toei Company in 1976, Takakura had already appeared in over 180 films. His first role after leaving the company was in Junya Satos Kimiyo Funnu no Kawa wo Watare. The film enjoyed huge box office success, and, more significantly, became the first foreign film to be released in China.

The success of the film made Takakura a household name in China and throughout the 1980s; his name became synonymous with contemporary Japanese cinema. Takakura earned his first Japanese Academy Award for Best Actor with director Shiro Moritanis Mount Hakkoda (1975). This led to the actors involvement with the moving, multi-award winning The Yellow Handkerchief of Happiness (1977) for which he won a second Japanese Academy Award.

In 1989, Takakura returned to Hollywood to appear in Ridley Scotts Oscar-nominated “Black Rain,” with Michael Douglas and Andy Garcia. He then brought Hollywood back to Japan for his 200th film, starring opposite Tom Selleck in Fred Schepisis “Mr. Baseball” (1992), a story about an American baseball player transferred to a Japanese team.

Takakuras talent has grown with his years and in 1999, he won an awesome five Best Actor awards for his role in Yasuo Furuhatas “ailroad Man” (1999). He won the Best Actor Award at the 23rd Japanese Academy Awards, Best Actor Award at the 44th Asia Pacific Film Festival and he became the first Japanese actor to win the Best Actor Award at the 23rd Montreal World Film Festival. In 2001, Takakura starred in Furuhatas critically acclaimed “The Firefly” to rave reviews.