Friday, 5 October 2007

Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles (2005)

Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles 2005Zhang Yimou has pulled off another tearjerker after Happy Times. I've much more to say about these 2 movies.

Yunnan, China, lies not far from the foot of the Himalayas, would provide plenty of breathtaking gorgeous peaks for the tourists to behold in awe. This inspiring backdrop also serves as the backdrop for this story. But natural wonders aren't the only draw cards for this province, what most tourists flock to see is its diverse ethnic minorities living in their traditional lives, which plays a crucial role in this film.

2 recurring themes run through several of Zhang films. The 1st one is Chinese bureaucracy that he addressed in The Story of Qiu Ju (2005), and Not One Less (1999), now this one. He must have a lot of frustration himself swamped in government red tapes while trying to make a film in China. The other theme is the trio of tradition vs modernity, collectivism vs individualism, countryside vs city. These 3 pairs of ideas are different, but closely intertwined. Tradition, collectivism, and village represent the old, while modernity, individualism, and city points to the new. This movie examines the contrast of these 2 extremes.

He addresses this themes in Happy Times from a different angle and context. In villages, people live in very closely knit community. When the kid becomes an orphan, the whole village takes up the responsibility of caring for him. When he gets lost, the whole village comes out looking for him. When the Japanese visits the kid, the whole village throws a banquet for him. There's no individualism, the village acts as a whole. One for all and all for one. This is communism in essence. In contrast to the Japanese family, who lives in Tokyo, a typical cosmopolitan city. The Japanese son, like his father, is always alone. When somebody lies on a street in a city, most of us would walk past without looking. This wouldn't happen in a village. It isn't that city folks are particularly heartless, that's the nature between city and village. Living in apartments, we hardly know our neighbours. This is true the world over. Only differing in degree. But with the West being more developed, such difference is narrower. With China being developed so fast, and the gap between the 2 is huge. Hence, this is preoccupying many Chinese intellectuals. Not the least, this director.

Remember the title of this movie is Riding ALONE for Thousands of Miles. Loneliness, alienation, estrangement is all part of a modern life AND individualism in a city. You can't feel lonely and isolated in a village like this, even IF you want to. Tough luck! In this film, Zhang is taking a more balanced approach than in Happy Times (2000) (probably after some public criticism and/or soul searching). He also points out the negative side of being a villager. The kid was never asked what he wants because there's no individualism. The village knows best. There's little freedom to act, in fact, to think individually.

It's in this village that the Japanese lead found understanding, connection with other people and ultimately his own son.

I just recently watched Bird People in China (1998), which is a Japanese film about a Japanese experience in Yunnan. In it, it suggests that Japanese people might have been originated from Yunnan (also birth place of Mao Zedong). It's interesting that once again that in this movie a Japanese is coming to Yunnan. I don't know if Zhang knows about this other movie or that legend of the origin of Japanese people, or this is simply a coincidence. This should add another dimension to the story whether Zhang knows it or not.

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