That shifts, but only slightly, with his latest effort, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles. The bulk of the movie is set in the dusty province of Yunnan, which offers the sort of picturesque rural vistas characteristic of Zhang's work. The story does open in Japan, and its principal character is a Japanese man who travels to China in a symbolic quest to reconcile with his son. But the film's essential format is equivalent to that of Zhang's previous peasant-challenges-bureaucracy fables, such as The Story of Qiu Ju and Not One Less.
Riding Alone begins with a Chinese opera aria, then a view of an austere, lovely seashore, nearly an ink painting in shades of black and gray. This is the home of Takata (veteran Japanese cinematic tough guy Ken Takakura), a widower who lives at great emotional distance from Ken-ichi, his estranged son. Now Ken-ichi is seriously ill, and his wife Rie (Shinobu Terajima) summons Takata to Tokyo.
When Ken-ichi refuses to see his father, Rie gives Takata a videotape. It seems that Ken-ichi is a scholar of Chinese folk opera and was planning to return to Yunnan to videotape a performance of a traditional work, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles.
With no other idea of what he can do for his son, Takata decides to go to China and document the performance himself.
This is a complicated mission for a man who speaks no Chinese and is, as he allows with iconic gruffness, "not good with people." Soon after arriving in Yunnan, Takata learns that the man who agreed to sing the opera for Ken-ichi is now in prison. When the implacable Takata insists that only Li Jiamin (played by Li himself) will do, his official guide and interpreter dumps him.
The visitor then must rely on an amateur tour guide (Qiu Lin), whose name is translated here as "Lingo" -- and whose limited Japanese sometimes turns into English under stress. Working awkwardly together, the two men manage to visit Li in prison, but he refuses to perform because he's distraught over never having met his 8-year-old son, Yang Yang (Yang Zhenbo).
The next stop is Stone Village, where Takata tries to convince the local elders to allow him to take Yang Yang to meet his father. They agree, but the boy doesn't. He escapes into the wilderness, and Takata follows.
On one level, Riding Alone is Zhang's most sentimental film, with lots of tear-jerking and even some outright blubbering. It's also a remarkably sanguine portrait of the Chinese penal system, which proves unconvincingly receptive to the fixation of one bull-headed Japanese tourist.
Yet the film, for all its emphasis on unresolved fatherson relationships, is as much a comedy as a drama. It's also, like so many of Zhang's films, a romance between director and actor. For the first time, the director has replaced such formidable beauties as Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi with a man -- but one who inspires an equal amount of admiration. Takakura appeared in some of the first foreign movies imported into China after the Cultural Revolution, and Zhang has described him as a "childhood idol."
If Zou Jingzhi's script (from a story by him, Zhang and Wang Bin) emphasizes the universal yearnings of fathers separated from their sons, it also has great fun with the differences, both actual and exaggerated, between Japanese and Chinese sensibilities. Takata is stoic and nearly silent, motivated as much by duty as by love. And his nation, as depicted here, is nearly monochromatic.
China, however, is a riot of color and feeling, as outsized as Chinese opera itself. In Japan, Takata eats alone; in Yunnan, he's the guest of honor at a banquet that stretches through the town's main street, seemingly into infinity. (Cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding films the vast supper as though it were as ample as China's mountains or Japan's seas.)
Zhang also doesn't skimp on secretions and excretions: Takata leaves ultra-hygienic Japan, where blowing your nose is a public nuisance, for a country where copious tears lead to even more abundant amounts of mucus, and little boys shit in the mountains.
Since his more recent films often emphasize visual beauty over content, and because his early critiques of Chinese society have turned softer, Zhang has seen his reputation slip in the West. His latest movie, with its crying jags and conventional humanism, won't change that.
Yet the film's melodrama is twinned with humor, so that a few poignant moments -- a revelation about Ken-ichi's character, a shot of Rie dressed in black -- have unexpected power. And while the cross-cultural scenario might seem a logical move from a director whose spectacular Hero and House of Flying Daggers brought him into expanded contact with Hong Kong and Japanese collaborators, ChineseJapanese friendship is not so innocuous a theme on Zhang's side of the border. After all, Japanese invaders were the villains of his debut, 1987's Red Sorghum, whose brutal finale was set in the 1930s.
That the director can now make a parable of reconciliation is no small thing, and if Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles is not as starkly elegant as Zhang's early work, it is richer, warmer and funnier. Grade: B