Director Yimou Zhang’s last two karate chop spectacles, Hero and House of Flying Daggers, swept the multiplexes and earned an Oscar nomination each with their bombastic, faux-mythical Chinese folklore. However, amid the high kicks and transcendent cinematography was the niggling feeling that the plot was secondary to the techniques, and if you ran out for more popcorn, it wouldn’t matter what you’d missed.
In this hushed epic about a Japanese fisherman and his estranged son, Zhang hopes to prove that his craft isn’t just wrapping paper; he doesn’t have aerial martial arts, but he’s got a character, a plot—and a message—and in case you venture to the snack bar, he makes sure they’re unmistakable.
Takada (screen legend Ken Takakura) is a hermit of few words. He doesn’t utter a single one, in fact, until ten minutes into the picture. Thankfully, his inner monologue is more verbose, and lays out the drama in the opening scene: Takada hasn’t spoken to his son Kenichi (Kiichi Nakai) for a decade—hasn’t even returned to Tokyo, in fact—but must now climb on to a train car named reconciliation when his daughter-in-law Rie (Shinobu Terajima) tells him that Kenichi is in the hospital with a sinister and mysterious illness. Of course, Kenichi refuses to see his father, and Rie sends Takada back to his fishing village with a conciliatory VCR tape of his son—a devoted scholar of traditional Chinese opera—interviewing a temperamental singer Li Jiamin (Li Jiamin), and promising the singer that he will return in a year to record his performance of a forgotten classic about Emperor Guan’s loyalty, “Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles.”
His bedridden son’s unfulfilled pledge presses Takada into action. Like Odysseus, he must sacrifice comfort for fidelity, abandoning home for ragged, beautiful rural China to record Li Jiamin’s masterwork—a goal blocked by more obstacles than the final round of American Gladiators. Unlike Odysseus, however, these challenges aren’t monsters and sirens, but language barriers, red tape, and the empathetic who wish that, for his sake, Takada would take the simplest route toward redemption by returning to Tokyo and just apologizing to his son.
Yet for Takada, emotions and humility are scarier than action. As he slogs trough the Chinese outback like the Asian John Wayne (and like John Ford, Zhang makes majesties out of the dramatic scenery), Takada’s emotional disconnection is underscored subtly by his inability to speak directly about his quest; walled off by language and timidity, his separation reaches absurdist levels when he must videotape his plea to contact Li Jiamin to the Office of Foreign Affairs, have it translated over the phone by an interpreter named Jasmine (who dictates it into Chinese to his guide lingo), who then reads Takada’s message to the bureaucrats. Yet he’s hardly alone in his isolation—even though the most obscure Chinese hamlet has cell phone reception, few people speak plainly, and even fewer bother to listen.
It’s odd that the masterful Zhang would laden this restrained, graceful film with a narration that does the talking his characters should, and the movie trips over its obviousness. Takada’s awakening is a given; still, just as Homer knew that a story’s pleasures lay in the path, not the destination, this circuitous voyage is worth the trek.