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Friday, Feb. 3, 2006
Master auteurs deliver classics on dealing with impending death
"Tanki, Senri o Hashiru (Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles)" is a departure for director Zhang Yimou from the big-budget period spectacles he has been making of late ("Hero," "House of Flying Daggers") and a return to the themes and rural settings of his most-acclaimed earlier work.
But instead of a determined young woman setting out on a journey to seek justice (Gong Li in "The Story of Qiu Ju") or find a lost student (Wei Minzhi in "Not One Less"), his never-say-die protagonist is an elderly Japanese man, played by Ken Takakura.
Takakura, a former yakuza movie star turned Clint Eastwood-like icon, has been an idol of Zhang's since the director saw him in Junya Sato's 1976 actioner "Kimi yo Funnu no Kawa o Watare (Cross the River of Rage)."
In "Riding Alone," he plays Gouichi Takada, a fisherman who is estranged from his son, Kenichi (Kiichi Nakai), a researcher of Chinese folk arts. Then he hears that Kenichi is dying of liver cancer and goes to Tokyo to see him, after a 10-year separation. Kenichi refuses to meet him, but his wife (Shinobu Terashima) gives Takada a videotape of Kenichi's most recent trip to China, in which he fails to persuade a Beijing opera singer (Li Jiamin) to perform a classic number titled "Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles." Takada decides to visit the singer in Yunnan Province and tape his performance for Kenichi.
Once he arrives, however, he learns that the singer is in prison for stabbing a colleague who taunted him about his illegitimate son. His guide tells him his mission is hopeless and leaves him for another client, but with the help of a local man (Qiu Lin) who can string together a few words of Japanese, Takada presses on. He wangles a visit with the singer in prison, but the singer, guilt-ridden about his now parentless son, refuses to perform. Takada decides to journey to the boy's remote village and reunite him with his father.
Zhang tells this story much as he has told his other cinematic tales of stubborn persistence in the face of official opposition and indifference -- that is, with wry comic touches, but also with straightforward sympathy for his hero, as well as all he encounters, including the bureaucrat, the prison warden and others who, in almost any other film, would automatically fall into the evil or clueless bins. Instead of blunting his film's edge, Zhang uses this stance to deepen it -- and open audience tear valves.
Takakura, now a spry 74, is the most economical of actors, who can convey volumes with little more than looks, gestures, and, in his scenes with the singer's young son, the occasional bodily function gag. In "Riding Alone," his performance still has his trademark gravitas, minus the ponderousness that can be his biggest defect.
In the film's final third, Zhang and cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding fill the screen with shots, such as hundreds of villagers feasting at linked tables in the open street, and Takada and the boy wandering through a fantastic landscape of wind-carved rock, that equal anything Zhang has done in terms of sheer visual splendor -- though fans of "Raise the Red Lantern," "Ju Dou" and "Red Sorghum" will notice that his palette has become more subdued, with more blues and grays, and fewer of his once-trademark reds.
The film itself, however, is a moving reaffirmation of the humanistic qualities that made Zhang's work so acclaimed in the West in the first place.
* * *
Jun Ichikawa's "Aogeba Totoshi (Gratitude)" also depicts one man's response to an approaching death in his family -- but from the opposite angle.
His hero is Koichi (Terry Ito), a middle-aged elementary schoolteacher whose father (Takeshi Kato), a teacher once himself, has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and has returned home to die. Koichi, his wife, Mari (Hiroko Yakushimaru), and his mother (Miyoko Aso) are all there to care for him, but the strain begins to show, as when Koichi discovers a boy in his fifth-grade class looking at the photograph of a dead body on the Internet. Usually avuncular with his charges, Koichi curtly orders the boy to turn it off his screen.
The boy, it turns out, has lost his own father and is now obsessed with death. When he asks Koichi why looking at a corpse is wrong, Koichi has no ready answer. Meanwhile, his father, a prickly type who was always strict with his students, is passing his final days alone. Koichi has the idea of bringing volunteers from his class to visit him, but the boy is the only one to come a second time.
Thematically, "Aogeba Totoshi" is a continuation of "Byoin de Shinu to iu Koto (To Die in a Hospital)," Ichikawa's 1993 masterpiece about five terminal cancer patients. Dramatically, though, it's quite different, since the focus is less on the last days of the father, who is mostly a mute presence, than on how the living cope with the ultimate fact of death.
Ichikawa films this story in his usual elegiac style, including shots of Tokyo cityscapes that capture the evanescence of life with documentary-like clarity and poetic grace. At the same time, he doesn't prettify the actions of his principals, which in the boy's case verge on the morbid and, in Koichi's, on the exploitative. He embraces their humanity in all its suffering complexity.
Terry Ito, a sharp-tongued TV talent making his film debut, gives an unfussy, firmly grounded performance as Koichi. His casting was an inspired choice, in a film full of them.
"Aogeba Totoshi" takes its title from a traditional song students sing on graduation day to express gratitude to their teachers. It proves again what I've been saying for years -- Ichikawa has graduated to the rank of a Japanese cinematic master.