Dir: Zhang Yimou. HK-Chi-Jap. 2005. 108mins.

The opening film at the Tokyo International Film Festival,Riding Alone For Thousands Of Miles isa departure for director Zhang Yimou from the big-budgetperiod spectacles he has been making of late and a return to the themes and ruralsettings some of his most-acclaimed earlier work.

But instead of a determined youngwoman setting out on a journey to seek justice (as Gong Li did in The Story Of Qiu Ju [1994]) or find a lost student (see Wei Minzhi in Not One Less [1999]), his protagonist hereis an elderly Japanese man, played by Ken Takakura, whogoes to China to complete a research project for his dying son.

Takakura, an idol of Zhang's since the director first saw himin Junya Sato's 1976 action feature Cross The River Of Rage, will boost the film'sprospects in both Japan (distributor: Toho), where he is still a bankable star aftera 50-year screen career, and China, where his films are well known and where Riding Alone For Thousands Of Milesopens in December.

Elsewhere Zhang's name, as wellas the film's dramatic strengths and spectacular visuals, shot in China's mountainousYunnan Province, will open distribution doors. SonyPictures Classics holds US rights, while Edko (a co-producer)will open the film in Hong Kong.

Takakura plays Gouichi Takada, a Japanesefisherman who has become estranged from his son Kenichi (KiichiNakai), a researcher of Chinese folk arts, who he hasnot seen for 10 years. Then he hears that Kenichi is dying of liver cancer and goesto Tokyo to see him.

Kenichi refuses to meet hisfather, but his wife (Shinobu Terashima)gives Takada a tape of Kenichi's most recent trip to China - which shows his unsuccessfulattempt to persuade a Beijing opera singer (Li Jiamin)to perform a classic number entitled RidingAlone For Thousands Of Miles. Takada decides to visit the singer in Yunnan Province and tape his performance for Kenichi.

Once he arrives, however, hefinds that the singer is in prison for stabbing a colleague who taunted him abouthis illegitimate son. His guide tells Takada his mission is hopeless - and leaveshim for another client - but Takada engages a local man (QiuLin) who can string together a few words of Japanese and presses on.

Making full use of the electronicgear he has brought with him, as well as his fumbling interpreter, Takada persuadesa powerful bureaucrat to let him visit the singer in prison - but the artist, conscious-strickenabout his now parentless son, refuses to perform.

So Takada sets out for the boy'sremote village in the mountains - to find and reunite him with his father.

Zhang tells this story much ashe has told his other cinematic tales of stubborn persistence in the face of formidableofficial opposition - that is, with wry comic touches, but also with straightforwardsympathy for his hero, as well as all he encounters, including the bureaucrat, theprison warden and others who, in almost any other film, would automatically fallinto the evil or clueless bins. Instead of blunting his film's edge, Zhang usesthis stance to deepen it - and effectively unloosen audience tear valves.

Takakura, familiar to Western filmgoers for performances in The Yakuza, Black Rain and Mister Baseball,has not only aged well - he looks spiffy, spry and thoroughly conversant in variousmodern electronic mysteries - but also gained the gravitas to complement the silent-but-strongpersona that has long been his stock in trade.

He also is the most economicalof actors, who can convey volumes even when, as in his scenes with the singer'syoung son, he is reduced to little more than looks, gestures - and theoccasional bodily function gag.

Once the action moves to theson's village, in the film's final third, Zhang and cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding fill the screen with images - such as the hundredsof feasting villagers at linked tables stretching down a long street and Takadaand the boy wandering through a fantastic landscape of wind-carved rock - that equalanything in his oeuvre in sheer visual splendour, although fans of the Raise The Red Lantern, Ju Dou and Red Sorghum will notice that his palette has become more subdued: moreblues and greys, fewer of his once trademark reds.

The film itself, however, isa moving reaffirmation of the humanistic qualities that made Zhang's work so celebratedin the West in the first place. It will not ride alone at the box office.

Production companies
Elite Group (2004) Enterprises
Beijing New Picture Film Co
Gilla Co
Edko Films
Zhang Yimou Studio

Chinese distribution
BeijingNew Picture

Xiu Jian
Zhang Weiping
Bill Kong

Zou Jingzhi from a story by
Zhang Yimou
Zou Jingzhi
Wang Bin

Zhao Xiaoding

Production design
Sun Li

Cheng Long

Guo Wenjing

Main cast
Ken Takakura
Shinobu Terashima
Kiichi Nakai (voice)
Li Jiamin
Jiang Wen
Qiu Lin