“Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles” by the Chinese director Yimou Zhang, is widely praised for its beauty as an account of a old man trying to make up to his dying son for the lifelong division between them, evidently because of wanting to be alone. It is beautifully acted, a classical “changed by journey” story, against a background of ravishing scenery, both the Japanese rocky coast and the far inland eroded badlands of a remote part of China. The director is widely known for “House of Daggers” which made enough money for him to finance this small but expensive film. The regal and uncompromising old man is played by Ken Takakura, a Japanese actor of much fame and stature. Most of the actors are simply locals playing themselves and this works just fine.
But there is much in this movie that would reward analysis by a sociologist or historian. Takata-San, the old man, is not just traveling far into the Chinese interior, but as he goes he is moving back in time. In the beginning we see him taking a bullet train to Tokyo where people live in hives, extremely modern and slick, as individuals making their own decisions. But when he gets to the village of Stone Flower, riding in a farm cart pulled by a tractor, the village is a collective: people living interwoven lives by consensus. Decisions there are made by the whole group, expressing themselves through their village council. Along the way he passes through various bureaucracies trying to reconcile the individual with the group. The scariest for Americans is the prison where the inmates march in formation, chanting, “We will improve. We will renew ourselves. We will be obedient.”
When Takata-San finds the small boy he must bring back to the prison to meet his father, the kid (Yang Yang) turns out to be utterly rebellious, a nonconformist who chooses running away over getting along with the group. Just like Takata-San and -- as he discovers -- his own son, who had seemed to like remote China for aesthetic reasons but turns out to have liked the solitude of being different, an exception to all the requirements of the society. The son went to the remote traditional place to sit apart and watch, just as his father “hid out” in the little fishing village. They resist being “known.”
So Yimou Zhang sets up tensions and questions between the ancient village culture of China -- progenitor of Japan -- and the modern ironically isolating, contemporary, urban Japanese life where people die of overwork and drink. One could easily see translating this film to America by sliding a remote Indian rez into the place of Yunnan Province and a Long Island wealthy but solitary father of an anthropologist. In fact, it might even be possible to work in the key to this film, which no one seems to mention in reviews: the traditional “mask opera” actor, since American Indians also used masks.
Li Jiamin, a real mask actor famous in his own context, especially for the lead role in the traditional opera called “Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles,” is in prison for stabbing a man in an act of passion. His eloquence when masked is nothing compared to his real human grief and remorse, his longing for his son, also the result of an act of passion. Takata-san envies him his open weeping, his transparency, which brings Takata, the warden and the other convicts all to tears. The stubborn small son, who refused to come see his father, is not the point. Completing the intention of filming this performance is not the point. The point is putting aside the mask, at least temporarily. And the question is whether the villagers, living collectively in the old way, are not in the end more honest and compassionate than the impersonal crowds of Tokyo.
Since I’m not a big martial arts fan, I haven’t seen “House of Daggers.” But I have seen another earlier Yimou Zhang movie, “Raise High the Red Lantern.” This story, which happens in China in the Twenties, is about another stubborn person, this time a beautiful young woman (Gong Li) forced into being the fourth wife of a powerful man. She pits her will against the control of the man and his other three wives and endures terrible suffering. So many Chinese movies are about this refusal to conform. I love ‘em.
American movies are confused in this dimension of conform/don’t conform, and French movies celebrate nonconformity in a context of freedom, a triumphant defiance, but then worry about being adrift with no meaning. The British play out the theme in terms of class: is the upper class truly able to be free or aren’t they trapped in expectations just as much as the cook and butler downstairs?
I think Yimou Zhang is subtly subversive in his stories, quietly moving public opinion in several countries along the continuum between public and private to a reconciliation that allows unity but leaves people their personalities, their emotions, their desires, their griefs. He’s not against the collective, but rather wants them to show the compassionate motives that spare the unique and excessive.
This is not a change of subject. In preparing to write about the brain part called “the insula” I keep running across “neuroticism,” which is supposed to be one of the five inheritable dimensions of personality. “Neuroticism,” you can tell by the choice of the word, is not nice. The formal definition is a tendency to experience unpleasant emotions easily, such as anger, anxiety, depression, or vulnerability; sometimes called emotional instability. Big no-no in America. Shows a need for “adjustment,” being confined, being made to march in step chanting “I will reform, I will be reborn, I will conform.” There are pills for it. If those don’t work, maybe electroshock therapy. “Depression is an illness.” Nonconformity, failure to be pleased, anger -- we don’t allow those. And we’re not even China.
Another irony of “Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles” is that in the documentary interviews everyone agreed -- and these are Yunnan Province villagers talking -- that the director and the star of this film are the friendliest, easiest-going, warmest people they’ve ever met. They are not cranky geniuses shouting and throwing things, and yet they are the source of this eloquent defense of both private choice and personal emotion.