Moviegoers familiar only with his Hero and House of Flying Daggers may find Chinese director Zhang’s latest film unduly modest. There are no lavish scenes of the imperial court or massed armies doing battle; not one sword slices the air. No matter: Zhang has a secret weapon in veteran Japanese actor Ken Takakura, whose grave screen presence lends this contemporary-set film quiet depths.
Takakura plays Takata, a stoic old fisherman who comes to Tokyo when he learns that his estranged son, Ken-ichi, is sick with cancer. Ken-ichi refuses to see his father, but his wife (Terajima) gives Takata a videotape that Ken-ichi had made in China the year before. Ken-ichi had vowed to return to rural Yunan province so he could hear a celebrated actor (Li) sing a song from the traditional “mask opera.” Now Takata makes that journey instead, hoping to videotape the performance and reconcile with his dying son. This being China, things don’t exactly go as planned.
For all its simplicity, Riding Alone is rich with marvelous details: the comical frustrations of the language barrier, the otherworldly beauty of the Chinese landscape, the tenuousness of cell-phone connections. Zhang has given Takata a voiceover narration, but it’s superfluous: Takakura’s performance speaks eloquently for itself. (Opens Fri; Click here for venues.) — Tom Beer