FILM SUMMARY: Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles
Dir. Zhang Yimou (China, 2005)
ONE: FATHER AND SON ESTRANGED
- Credits begin, and we hear a high-pitched tenor voice singing loudly. Title up, and then we see an old man sitting on the rocks near the sea, and he is reading a letter. Sea birds fly around him. His voice-over: “For unexplainable reasons, my son, Kenichi, and I have been estranged for years. There is a profound chasm between us which hurts me deeply. I want us to be close again.” Cut to a close shot from the side showing the old man’s long face, his big ear, and a cap perched low over his head. “When I was thinking about how to improve my relationship with him, Kenichi got sick and was hospitalized. His wife, Rie, informed me.”
- A bullet train racing on its elevated track—mountains in the background. The voice-over continues: “She has suggested to me—” Close shot of the old man in the passenger compartment. “—that it would be an opportunity for Kenichi and me to speak to each other and to improve our relationship.” His view outside the train of the snowy mountains in the distance. “This might be the only chance I have to talk with him face to face.” Arrival of train: “Thus, I have come to Tokyo.” Close shot of Rie, his daughter-in-law.
- The old man riding inside her car. She talks about the changes he must notice in Tokyo. Obviously, he has not been here for a long time—10 years. He says nothing. She tells him that Kenichi has been sick for some time. He suffers from stomach pain. Cancer? But he still does not have a diagnosis yet.
- Inside the hospital. She asks the old man to wait in the corridor while she goes inside and tells Kenichi his father has arrived. She hasn’t told her husband his father was coming. Cut to a view from the door of the hospital ward. She goes inside. Another patient sits up watching TV. She goes behind a screen to that man’s left and talks to her husband. The old man waits outside and hears the conversation: “Your father is here to see you. Why don’t you let him in? He’s come a long way to see you.” Kenichi says “Why should I see him? Who asked him to come? Was it you?” Another view of the room from the doorway. Kenichi continues: “I never said I wanted to see him.” Close shot of the father, reacting. “Enough, I don’t want to see him!” More reaction. Then a cut to a wide shot of the old man in the corridor, and he begins to walk away.
- Exterior shot. He walks slowly away from the building. Here comes his daughter-in-law, running after him. She stops him. Close shot of Rie. “Father, it’s because he’s sick that he was in a bad mood. Don’t take his words to heart. Forgive him. Let me talk to him again.” The old man shakes his head no. Her reaction. She reaches into her purse and draws out a video cassette. “This tape—”she says, as we get a reverse angle to show his reaction—“was made by Kenichi in China.” Close shot of the old man. Camera back to her: “It was broadcast as part of a TV special. Please have a look at his work. He takes the tape. She asks him to view the tape.
TWO: TO FULFILL A DYING SON’S WISH
- The rocky landscape along the Japanese coast. Camera right to show the old man’s cottage right on the beach. He is shoveling snow away from the entrance. Someone inside calls out his name—Mr. Takata—and the old man goes inside. A younger man greets him inside, and it is evident that this man has brought a VCR and set it up in the other room. “Do you know how to use a VCR?” Takata says, “Yes.” He stands there with the tape after the other man has left the house. He puts it in the VCR. He presses play on the remote. The tape is the TV special that Rie referred to. It begins with a young woman introducing Kenichi Takata, an expert on Oriental Folk Arts. Then we see some footage of a masked opera, shot by Kenichi. His father stands in front of the TV set and watches the footage. As the dancers perform, one of the masked dancers begins to sing in a high-pitched tenor (remember that singing we heard at the beginning of the film?). Then a young Chinese man introduces Mr. Li Jiamin, the lead singer of the troupe. This fellow says he would love to perform for Kenichi, but he has a cold. “Come back and I’ll perform Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles.” Reaction shot of Takata. Then Li Jiamin explains that the opera is about Lord Guan. We can hear Kenichi’s voice (off camera) being quite enthusiastic about this information. “The Lord Guan from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms?” The Chinese interpreter explains to Li Jiamin that this fellow actually knows who Lord Guan is. Li Jiamin continues: “Riding Alone . . . is the greatest of all mask operas, and I’m the person who can perform it the best!” We hear Kenichi’s voice as he asks the old man to perform some of the opera right now. But Li Jiamin is adamant: his voice is not good today. Even when the interpreter explains that Kenichi is leaving for Japan tonight, the lead singer won’t perform any part of the mask opera. Kenichi says, “Then it’s a deal. I’ll come back next year to hear you perform.” The lead singer says, “I promise you an unforgettable performance.”
- A wide shot of snow along the coast. Camera down to show fishing boats at their docks. Close shot of Takata on his fishing boat. He chats briefly with some other fishermen. Inside his cottage, he answers the phone. It’s his daughter-in-law in Tokyo. The scene is composed of parallel cuts, either showing the old man reacting to her words, or close shots of Rie on the phone outside the hospital. The old man says nothing in the entire conversation! Rie: “Father! I’ve been calling and calling.” Takata. “Have you been fishing?” she asks. Rie: “I’ve received Kenichi’s diagnosis. The old man reacts. Rie: “Cancer of the liver. It is terminal.” Takata reacts. “I haven’t told Kenichi yet.” Rie: “I don’t think I have the courage. He thinks he will be discharged soon. Takata reacts. Rie cries. “I’ve always hoped, in my heart, that our family could enjoy a meal together.” Takata. “You, Kenichi, me.” Rie: “Now I’m not so sure that’s going to happen.” She cries again. Takata. He can hear her crying on the phone. He bites his lip, but he doesn’t speak. Cut to wide shot of Rie crying, bent over at the waist.
- The old man stands on the frozen shore of the sea near his cottage. Closer shot, and now we hear his voice-over: “I am going to China. I decided this suddenly. I don’t know what is out there (closer shot from the side), and I’m not good at dealing with people.” Shot of him on airplane. “However, I feel compelled to go. I need to do something for my dying son.
- His arrival in China. A young Chinese woman holds a sign, written in Japanese. His name, Koichi Takata, is written on the sign. Cut to them walking in the airport. She asks, “Do you want to rest in Kunming City or go to Lijiang City immediately?” [These cities are in Yunnan Province, far Southern China, a province just NW of Vietnam, north of Laos, and NE of Myanmar. Kunming is about 400 miles NW of Hanoi, Vietnam, and Lijiang is another 200 miles NW of Kunming.] He tells her he is ready to go to Liajing.
- Wide shot of Lijiang—a mountain in the distance. The old man stands in a narrow street in this remote city and talks to his daughter-in-law on a cell phone. She is shocked to learn that he is in China. She is in the hospital. He tells her he is going to film Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles. She asks, “You want to film it for Kenichi?” She pauses. “I gave you that tape so you could learn more about him.” She asks him to return home. But he tells her not to worry. His travel agency has arranged everything. “Just don’t tell Kenichi what I’m planning.” Reaction shot of Rie. She can’t believe he is making this trip.
- Wide shot of a mountainous area around Lijiang. A white van is on the highway. The van makes a horseshoe turn, and then rides along a wide river with the village of Li in the distance. Takata’s guide, a woman from the travel agency, introduces him to Lingo, the village tour guide. “He speaks a little Japanese.” (We’ll soon learn that he speaks very little Japanese.) Later they walk through a crowded bazaar. The young woman reminds Lingo of Kenichi’s visit last year. Lingo is delighted to meet Kenichi’s father. “Kenichi is my friend!” Takata is a bit taken aback by Lingo’s enthusiasm. “Very good friend,” Lingo says.
- Later, Takata is videotaping a small group of village dancers, who dance and sing around his camera. Inside a shop, Lingo is helping another man get outfitted with the costume of a dancer in the mask opera. But the travel agency guide is shocked when she discovers that the lead singer is not Li Jiamin. She knows that Takata only wants to film the lead singer from the videotape. Lingo says, matter-of-factly, “It doesn’t have to be Li. Other actors also can play Lord Guan. But she is adamant. It has to be Li Jiamin. Practical Lingo says, “If he insists on Li, there will be no show today.” Outside the shop later, Lingo explains to the travel agency guide and interpreter that Li Jiamin likes to drink, and one day during rehearsal someone mentioned that he had a bastard son.” While he speaks, we can see the dancers inside the building behind them rehearsing their moves. Lingo continues: “He got so upset he grabbed a wooden dagger and stabbed the guy in the face. He was arrested and sentenced to three years in prison.” Camera on Takata reacting. “Tell him it doesn’t have to be Li Jiamin performing.” Wide shot of the three: Lingo says, “All the actors are very good. Once the mask is on, it doesn’t matter who is behind it. Even a native can’t tell the difference between the voices. So how could a Japanese person?” Takata reacts. He looks around, his jaw tightens. The travel agency guide tells Lingo, “His son wanted to film Li. He is making the film for his son. No one else will do.” Practical Lingo repeats the basic problem here: Li is in jail for three years. Lingo explains that even if he is a model prisoner, he won’t be out for at least a year. “Takata should come back. There will be other chances to see it.” The woman translates: “Why not come back next year?” Reaction shot of the old man. He says nothing.
- The old man inside the van on the way back to the airport. He hands some money to the young woman. “Jasmine, help me!” She turns around and says, “It’s not about the money. I’m in a difficult position. I’m just a tour guide. How can I get foreigner permission to film inside a prison? It is impossible.” He holds the money out to her again and asks, “Please help me.” “This is beyond my ability and my job description,” she says. “Please forgive me. My contract with you is only for three days. I’ve been assigned other jobs. I cannot do anything else.” Finally the old man talks! He says, “Ask your boss if I could employ another interpreter.”
- Wide shot of the highway, the mountains all around them, and the van suddenly stops. Takata gets out of the van. Jasmine makes a call to her boss.” While she talks, the camera shows a view of the foothills, and then it pans around to show Takata from the side as he looks out at this new world. Then Jasmine leaves the van and approaches him. She tells him her boss could not help him with either a new interpreter or his plan to film inside the prison. She asks him to forget about the idea. She asks, “Is that actor, Mr. Li, so important to your film?” He nods and walks back to the van and motions the driver to turn back. So the van reverses course and returns to Lijiang City.
FOUR: TAKATA’S DETERMINATION
- A scene between Lingo and Jasmine in the village. He explains to her the importance of the mask opera. Lord Guan traveled a thousand miles to help a friend. A man must be loyal!” Takata listens in nearby, but of course he understands nothing of what Lingo is saying, in Chinese. We see him in a close shot. His voice-over: “I can’t understand a word they are saying, but I need their help. Without them I can’t go anywhere. For the first time I feel helpless. I wonder if Kenichi would feel the same way? Lingo and Jasmine call him over, and here’s the plan. If Jasmine can’t help him, then Lingo will help him. Lingo speaks to him in halting Japanese, and Takata turns over the money. Then Lingo explains that he will have to carry with them some of the props and costumes for the mask opera, because the prison will have nothing like that for Li Jiamin. When Lingo is gone, Jasmine explains, “Lingo is my friend. He is enthusiastic, but he really doesn’t know much. Let me tell you what to do. Please write this down. She explains the bureaucratic offices he will have to visit and the hurdles he will have to overcome. She tells him to call her if he has any problems or if Lingo can’t properly translate for him.
- First stop on the hurdles of bureaucracy: the office of foreign affairs. There sit Lingo and Takata, waiting to see the official. The two wait in a room decorated with numerous red flags with Chinese writing on them. The old man asks Lingo if all the banners are “thank you banners,” and Lingo makes a half-hearted explanation. Here comes the middle-aged official, and he wears a leather (or vinyl) jacket! He also has on a sweater vest and a tie that matches his shirt. Very dapper! He notes that after checking the files, it is evident that Kenichi did visit the area frequently. So now he gets down to business. He explains to Lingo that getting someone in to visit a prison is without precedent. “For a foreigner to visit a prison is not too easy. Even if it was, the procedures are complicated.” So the long and short of it is that he does not have to visit this prisoner. “Many singers can perform this opera. They could be even better than Li Jiamin. I advise him to stop trying.” End of meeting.
- Outside the building, Lingo tries to explain to Takata what the official told them. Lingo is sitting on a stone bench, and Takata stands next to him. But he does a terrible job of translating, and finally Takata takes out his cell phone and calls Jasmine—but he only gets her answering machine. So back to Lingo. More difficulty understanding what Lingo is saying. Takata calls Jasmine again and reaches her this time. He hands the phone over to Lingo, who tells Jasmine, “It was a disaster.” Jasmine tells him to send Takata home. This should be the end to it. Lingo hands the phone back to Jasmine, and she tells him his request was refused and explains that Lingo will arrange for him to get a ticket to return to Japan. Phone call over, Lingo stands up and admits, “My Japanese is not very good.” He apologizes to Takata, who takes it all in and is obviously thinking hard about what to do next.
- Takata and Lingo walking down a street of shops. They stop in a shop that sells the red banners with gold fringes, and Takata buys a banner. Cut to a scene showing Takata setting up the video camera on the tripod in front of Lingo in their hotel room. When the camera is ready, Lingo leaves his chair and Takata sits down in the chair to begin his narration.
- Lingo sitting outside the office of foreign affairs late at night. Here come the ministers after a long meeting. Director Li is among them, and Lingo singles him out. Apparently, Lingo had come by earlier and asked the director to view Takata’s video, and the director forgot about his request. So Lingo has been sitting out there for hours, waiting to see the director. Everyone goes inside to look at the video. The directors all sit down, but Director Li wonders why they should look at a tape of Takata when they don’t speak Japanese. Lingo pulls out a copy of the script, vetted by Jasmine. “That’s complicated,” Director Li says, and Lingo admits, “I’ve been practicing for hours.” Cut to the monitor, where we see Takata sitting and clearing his throat several times before he begins to speak. At first the shot selection is either a shot of Takata alone on the monitor (A), a shot of the monitor with Lingo standing next to it (B), and a reaction shot of the directors (C). Lingo translates.
- (C) “Forgive me for speaking to you in this way. But I have no other option. (B)
- (A) A long time ago, (B) because of a mistake I made, I hurt my son Kenichi deeply.
- (A) He has never forgiven me. Recently my son was diagnosed with cancer. He may not have very long to live.
- (C) He has a deep passion for Chinese folk operas.
- (A) He promised to return here this year to film Li Jiamin’s performance. I don’t know at this point what else I can do for my son. Maybe filming Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles is the only thing I can do for him now. Director Li, please help me. Please. (He holds up the “thank you” banner he bought at the shop.)
- (B) Lingo pulls that same banner out of his bag and holds it up, and now we see the banner on tape and the banner in Lingo’s hands. Both put the banners away. Then both repeat the same process with another banner. “Director Li—”
- (A) (Close shot of Takata as he holds up the second banner.) “—Please! (Suddenly he begins to cry, and he holds the banner higher to hide his crying—but we can see his eyebrows knit together, and then he wipes away his tears—lowering the banner—and then raises it up again. Now that he is composed, he drops the banner again and looks straight at the camera.
- (C) All are attentive—watching the tape.
- (A) Takata holds the banner higher, to hide more crying, and then wipes away more tears.
- (C) Close-up of Director Li. Tears are welling up his eyes, too.
- Long shot of Takata standing alone on a narrow cobblestone street late at night. Close-up of him, as he looks around. Cut to inside the office of foreign affairs. Director Li is on the phone talking to some bureaucrat. Lingo sits nearby. “If you think it’s possible, I’ll report it to the Bureau of Foreign Affairs, and ask them to liaison with the Bureau of Justice to resolve this. Can you help me with this?
FIVE: AT THE PRISON
- Low angle shot of Lingo and Takata standing somewhere—they look nervous and tentative. Cut to another angle, showing the two standing in front of the entrance to a prison. Two guards come out. One of the guards takes Lingo’s props, including the pole with the curved blade atop it, and all go inside. Interior of the prison: prisoners are marching in the yard and singing songs in unison: “Reform our ways! Redeem ourselves! Become new people!” As they march to the right, we can see our crew walking behind them to the left.
- Close shot of a prison official—Warden Chen. He is wearing an impressive uniform with a row of medals above his left front pocket. Lingo takes notes, so that his Chinese can be interpreted later (likely by Jasmine!). The warden explains other foreigners had filmed in the prison years ago. “But some of them were not nice. They complained publicly about conditions in the prison. This gives our country a bad image. Tell him this!” Lingo says he will. “Troublemakers like that are not welcome. I have nothing against him personally.” Then he asks, “You only want to film one prisoner?” Lingo says, “Yes.” “Prisoner Li Jiamin?” “Yes.” “Just to film him singing?” “Yes.” “Which opera?” “Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles.” The warden considers this point, and he concludes, “It sounds like an excellent way to promote Chinese culture. After all, Lord Guan is not a state secret.” Lingo smiles and agrees. So the warden agrees to the proposition.
- Cut to a small auditorium with a concrete floor and a raised concrete stage. The warden, now wearing an impressive police-type cap, turns on a disco ball on the ceiling, checks the microphone, and concludes, “This is perfect. This is our recreation room. The prisoners use the room on weekends and public holidays. It’s a place to relax.” All is set, so our two men begin to unpack their gear and Takata sets up the camera. Here comes six prisoners who carefully line up, and then the first in line announces, “Prisoner Yang and the band reporting for duty, sir. They march in, and the warden explains that some of them are professionals and others learned while in prison. “They are extremely popular,” he says. Now we see Li Jiamin, clean-shaven with a short haircut, report for duty. The warden asks if he can sing the opera, and Li Jiamin says he can. Then the warden goes over to consult with him.
- A brief shot of the prison yard with more prisoners marching about and singing self-redemption songs. Back inside the auditorium, the prison band strikes up its music, and then a cut to the magnificent costume worn by Li Jiamin on stage. He wears the mask, and he is one imposing figure! But he doesn’t move. He doesn’t sing. He just stands there. The warden encourages him, Lingo encourages, the band strikes up the music a second time, and once again Li Jiamin cannot sing. Finally, Lingo goes up on stage and asks Li Jiamin what’s wrong. He whispers, “He is waiting to see you perform. He is from Japan.” Takata reacts. “He came to China only for your performance.” Back to Lingo and Li. “He is Kenichi’s father. The one who came often to see you perform. Please sing. His son is fond of you. Please sing for him. Takata’s reaction. Finally, Lingo helps Li take off his mask, and we can see the old man has been crying all this time. Takata’s reaction. Back to Li Jiamin. “With the shackles on, I cannot perform.” He slumps down on the stage. “I miss my son!” Back to Takata again, and this time we hear his voice-over: “I envy him. Without caring what others think, he can cry and say what he wants to say in public. He is a fortunate man. If only I had courage the way he does, the relationship with my son would be different.” The warden calls it quits. He tells Li, “Tell him (Takata) to come back later, and we’ll try this again.” Of course, Lingo tries to communicate to Takata—but with no success.
- Outside the prison, Takata is on his cell phone with Jasmine. “I don’t know what’s going on. Would you talk to him (Lingo)?” So Jasmine listens to Lingo explain why they couldn’t film in the prison. “He misses his son. He has never met his son.” Jasmine wonders what to do. Lingo says, “Just forget it. Li wasn’t like this when he was living in the village.” Now Jasmine talks to Takata.
SIX: CONSULTING THE VILLAGE ELDERS
- Takata in his hotel room. He calls Jasmine again and apologizes for calling at night. “After giving it a lot of thought, I’ve decided to go get Li Jiamin’s son.” Jasmine tells him not to do it. She warns him that the area where the boy lives is far away. “If you go there, you will not have time for what you want to do.” His response: “I’ve made up my mind.” Jasmine asks, “Isn’t making the film for Kenichi the most important thing?” The old man answers, “Both are of equal importance now.” He asks her to call Lingo and arrange for him to take Takata to Stone Village tomorrow.”
- Lingo comes to his room later. But he only drops off a note and then leaves. Later, Takata is on the phone again—calling Jasmine again. In this entire scene he is shown in close-up as he talks to Jasmine. He wants to know what she told Lingo when she called him. “Why did he return the money to me? Will he still help me tomorrow?” Jasmine explains, “Lingo and I feel very sad about Kenichi’s illness. I apologize for not helping you earlier.” He accepts her apology. She continues, “Lingo doesn’t feel right about taking your money when your son is so sick. He will still take you to Stone Village tomorrow.” He answers, “Really? Thank you both. I’m happy that Kenichi has friends like you. Does he have many friends like you in China?” Her response is surprising: “Actually, I don’t know Kenichi. Lingo doesn’t know him very well, either.” Then she drops a bombshell: “Lingo said that Kenichi hardly has any friends in China. Kenichi seldom spoke to anyone. He would stay alone in Liajing City for months. Sometimes he just stared at the mountains for hours. He seemed very lonely.” She apologizes for having said too much. Takata says, “Tell me more about my son.” She answers, “I’m afraid that’s all I know.” The phone conversation ends. Cut to a wide shot of the old man in his room. He picks up the video camera and ponders what to do next.
- Wide shot of the road through the mountains—and one switchback after the next. Their van comes upon stone workers, and then we see the two men in the middle of a cart filled with women, all wearing colorful scarves--the cart pulled by a tractor. Wide shot of the cart as it moves along a narrow roadway only 30 feet from a sharp drop-off over a cliff. The two walk through the gate of Stone Village and across a pedestrian bridge that spans a chasm. The village looks like something out of the 16 th century in terms of architecture.
- Lingo meets with the village elders in a large wooden meeting room. Takata sits across the room from the group around a large table. The elder explains that the mother of Li Jiamin’s illegitimate son, Yang Yang, died a week ago. “He has no other family to care for him. The villagers are taking care of him now.” Another old man stands up and throws in, “The village chief said the boy is now being raised by everyone.” The first elders says, “Li Jiamin was told about this.” Lingo answers, “That’s why he broke down in prison. This was the reason.” The elder says, “We know why you came here! Our committee has already made its decision.” He explains, “Yang Yang is Li’s son, born out of wedlock. But we all accept that. This is the first point. Second, after several years, Li has now decided to claim his son. We cannot accept this.” Lingo asks for a simple yes or no—“so I can give him an answer now.” But the elder is more concerned that Lingo hasn’t translated anything he has said to Takata. Lingo tries to defend himself, but then the elder says, “I doubt you speak any Japanese!”
- Cut to a wide shot of Takata sitting alone apart from the elders. We hear his voice-over: “This loud discussion is going on for a long time. I suddenly feel like an outsider. I realize that in a foreign-language environment you can feel very isolated.” Then a close shot of Takata. “But I’m slowly beginning to understand why Kenichi often visits here.” Cut to a wide shot that shows the table of elders in the foreground, and Takata in the background—as he gets up and goes over to Lingo and shows him the cell phone. Lingo says, “No signal.”
- Suddenly, one of the women at the table says follow me—and out they all go—and in five shots, we see them moving up stairs in the old village and across courtyards and up more steps, and finally they are all standing atop one of the roofs in the village and now Takata gets a signal so that he can call Jasmine. Lingo tells the elders who the old man is calling. Takata reaches Jasmine, and he turns the phone over to the elder, who goes over the same ground from before. But he does add, “Li’s sudden interest is hard to believe and confusing for everyone.” He hands the phone to Takata, and Jasmine translates. “I totally understand their reservations,” he tells Jasmine. Then he hands the phone back to the elder, who suddenly retreats on his earlier assertion by saying, “I never said no on this matter! Lingo can’t speak a word of Japanese! Mr. Takata needed to know our feelings on the subject. Now that he really understands we are very relieved. We have no more issues. After much discussion, we give our consent to let the boy go. Not for Li’s sake, but for the sake of our Japanese friend. Yang Yang can visit his father with Mr. Takata tomorrow.
- Close shot of the elder and Mr. Takata eating at a table filled with dishes, and then cut to a wide shot that tracks upward to reveal that the banquet table runs at least a city block in length all the way up the street. It appears that everyone in the village is eating at this table! Takata takes some pictures with his digital camera and then one of the elders brings Yang Yang over to the table. Yang Yang begins to eat, and Takata takes some pictures of him. Takata asks, through Lingo, if the boy wants to see his father. But the village elder throws up his arm and says loudly, “No problem! Of course he does!” Suddenly Takata gets a call on his cell phone, and he leaves the table and goes around a corner of a building to hear the call. Cut to his daughter-in-law, standing on a balcony overlooking apartment buildings. She tells him, “Father, please don’t be upset. I’ve told Kenichi about your trip to China. He didn’t say a word the whole night after he heard this, but he looked different. I could see a change in his eyes.” Takata reacts, but says nothing. “Father, he never expected that you would do such a thing for him.” Shot of Takata. “Kenichi told me today that this particular mask opera is not that important to him. He was only being polite to Li Jiamin.” Back to Rie. “So, Father, please come back. Please come home.” He reacts, but says nothing. Rie again: “Kenichi said your trip to China is the most wonderful thing you’ve ever done for him.” Now Takata speaks: “Did Kenichi say that?” Rie: “Yes, those were his exact words.” Takata: he can barely speak. He says good-bye. Then we hear his voice-over: “Standing here today, I’m not sure if Kenichi has uttered these words. If he has, it is the first compliment from my son in many years.” Cut to another angle on Takata. We see the edge of the building behind him and to the right 40-50 people lined up on both sides of the banquet tables. “Seeing this large banquet the villagers prepared for me, a total stranger, I am deeply touched. I will never forget this. The sight of such generosity and kindness from the villagers—” Now another angle on Takata, showing a wide shot of him with the line of tables to the right marching down the street into infinity. “—makes me want to believe that Kenichi has said these words.” Cut to a high angle wide shot showing the roofs of the village and the street below—with the line of tables snaking its way into the distance.
- Extreme wide shot of a barren landscape and a small tractor and cart filled with people—that’s our Takata and Lingo. Yang Yang is also in the cart with them. Takata takes a picture of the boy. The tractor breaks down. All get out of the cart. Takata looks around at this wasteland and takes a picture. Then Takata notices that the boy is gone. Suddenly he can see the boy running away in the distance—along a ridge. Lingo works with the driver to fix the tractor. Takata runs after the boy and calls his name. He sees the boy in the distance. He follows—calling out his name every so often.
- Now Lingo and the driver are calling out for Takata and the boy, too. Takata finds the boy down in one of the chasms below the cliffs. “Do you know your way home?” the old man asks. Of course, the boy doesn’t understand him. “Why are you running away?” The boy walks away and Takata follows him. “Are you going home? Is this the right direction?” The boy just keeps walking. The sandstone karsts all around them are like silent sentinels.
- The entire village has turned out, with torches, to look for the missing boy. Lingo has returned to the village to fetch rescuers. All run across the bridge between the village and the town gate. Meanwhile, Takata keeps following a few steps behind the boy out in the middle of nowhere. We hear his voice-over: “It seems like hours. All I can do is follow Yang Yang around. I’m one step behind him. I think the way I’m chasing after him is the way I chase after my own son. I don’t know which path to take or what direction to go. I have no idea.”
- Wide shot of the two walking-and then a cut to a close shot. He motions to the boy to stop—they have walked in a large circle, typical of people that are lost. He tries to explain this point to the boy, but to no avail. “We are lost—very lost,” he says. “Let’s wait for someone to find us.” They are filmed in the blue-gray light of moonlight here in the middle of the night. He looks for a place to rest, and the boy goes with him. The two find a cave in the mountain and they sit and wait. He checks his cell phone—no signal. The boy breaks away from him, runs outside the cave and then around a boulder. The old man follows, but then he hears the sound of pee hitting the ground and realizes the boy was not running away again. “I can’t do it if you watch,” Yang Yang says, and Takata backs away. The boy motions to him to “go away,” but the old man says he is staying. He hands the boy a napkin to wipe himself, but the boy shoos him away again. Then Takata takes a couple of pictures of the boy—despite his protestations. He seems to enjoying this moment, and I wonder if it reminds him of another time, another place, and another person. Then Takata holds his nose and wrinkles it up as if smelling bad poo. The boy laughs.
- Here come the rescuers. It appears that the official from the prison has brought some of his officers to help with the search. They split up and keep searching and calling out Takata’s name. Meanwhile, in the cave, Takata speaks reassuringly to the boy that they will be found. “Don’t be afraid. I’m sure they will find us.” But then he realizes that they can’t hide in the cave—they may not be found. He begins to yell loudly, and the kid seems fascinated with his efforts. Suddenly he pulls out a boat whistle and lets loose with it. The boy loves the silly sound the whistle makes—a kind of “vreeeee—it!” You can tell this kid would love to have that whistle so he could blow it and blow it over and over. The old man tries another trick: holding up his digital camera, pointing it toward the higher ground, and flashing its bulb. Takata sits down, and the kid gets an idea: he grabs the boat whistle and gives it a try—and the old man says, “Well done.” He tells the boy to blow it again—an easy request to make. So the kid blows it and blows it and Takata flashes away—trying to get the rescuers’ attention.
- Jasmine wakes up in the middle of the night to a phone call. Who is it? We don’t know yet. Back to the cave. The boy is asleep, and Takata covers him with his jacket. A dissolve to a later time in the night. We hear Takata’s voice-over: “Waiting to be found. I’m holding Yang Yang tightly in my arms. I don’t remember if I ever held Kenichi that way. I wonder if Kenichi ever held me like that to fall asleep. I don’t remember. Yang Yang has no idea what his father even looks like. I wonder what kind of father I am to Kenichi.”
NINE: TAKATA TALKS TO THE CHIEF
- Wide shot of the karsts. Sunrise. Then a wide shot of the top of cliffs, and there are people and ambulances and we see Takata being checked by a nurse inside one of the ambulances. Jasmine is standing right outside the vehicle. They move to check the boy after the old man checks out fine. While they attend to the boy, Takata asks Jasmine if he can speak to the chief.
- She brings Lingo and the village elder over to the vehicle. Takata apologizes for all of the trouble he caused. He asks why Yang Yang ran away yesterday. She translates: “There is no reason for that. Kids are like that.” Takata says, “I’m not so sure.” He asks, “Maybe he doesn’t want to see his father after all.” Jasmine asks the elder, “Should we ask Yang Yang directly to see if he wants to see his father?” The elder says, “There is no need to ask. We’ll make the decision for him.” Another person yells, “What the hell does a child know?” Another says, “He has to do as we say!” When Lingo tells the others to pipe down, the elder lashes out, “Shut up! You can’t speak Japanese anyway!” Takata turns around to look at the boy—who seems to be making faces at him from behind the glass. He asks Jasmine to ask the boy directly. She turns to the elder: “He would like you to ask Yang Yang directly what he wants.” The elder assents, and he goes over to the ambulance, sits the boy down, and asks, “Do you want to meet your Dad?” When the boy yells, “NO!” the elder chastises him: “Don’t be naughty!” Then the boy yells, “I’m not going!” But the elder wants him to answer WHY. “You must do as the adults say,” the elder rules. “I’m telling you to go!” But Yang Yang begins to cry. “He’s not my Dad!” he yells. “I’ve never seen him before!” The elder insists, “He is your Dad, no matter what!” “I’m not going!” the boy repeats. But again the elder wants the answer to the WHY question. “I just don’t.” Finally, we get a cut to Takata, Jasmine, and the others, and she explains, “Yang Yang doesn’t want to go since he has never met his dad.” Takata leans down and asks to speak to the chief. So here comes the elder over to Takata, who draws him away from the vehicle. All follow the two men as they walk away. An aide comforts the boy and leads him back inside the ambulance.
- Close shot of Takata. “Chief, and everyone, I’m sorry for causing you any trouble. I’ve decided not to take Yang Yang to the prison. Yang Yang might not be ready to meet his father yet. Although he is just a child, I think we should try to understand and respect his wishes on this.” Jasmine translates to the elder. The elder accepts Takata’s decision, and then Takata asks, “Who will raise the boy now?” “Tell him not to worry. The village will keep caring for Yang Yang. Li will be released in a few years. We’ll arrange a meeting then. The boy will be reunited with his dad. We will take care of it.”
- Takata sitting in the back of an SUV. Several villagers, including Yang Yang, are lined up not far away watching him. Jasmine gets in the vehicle—and then Takata suddenly exits to go over to the boy, where he kneels down in front of him and embraces him. The boy holds his arm against the old man’s shoulder. What an embrace! Reaction shots of Lingo from the vehicle and the village elder and others behind him. Takata releases the boy from his embrace, and then he holds his nose—reminding the boy of their intimacy outside the cave---and the boy smiles.
- Close shot of Takata inside the vehicle—they are on their way. Suddenly we hear the “vreeee-it” of the boat whistle, Takata opens the window and looks back
6. The vehicle moving down a curving mountain road. Inside the vehicle, Jasmine asks Takata what he wants to do now. “I want to visit the prison again,” he tells her. “If possible, I’d still like to film Li’s performance.” She tells him he may have to wait a few days to get an answer from the warden. He answers, “I’ll wait.”
- We see the boy blowing the whistle over and over.
- Takata’s POV shot as he looks back of the people.
- Then his reaction shot as he sticks his head out the window
- His POV shot again as the boy runs after their vehicle and keeps blowing the whistle.
- Takata waves from the window, and the boy just keeps on coming. But he stops at a rise in the road and stands there and watches the vehicle in the distance.
- Another shot of Takata waving at him—yelling his name.
- Reaction shot of the boy as he watches (in close-up).
- A last shot of Takata waving at him as the vehicle dips over a high point in the road and vanishes.
- Wide shot of the boy standing on the rise in the road.
TEN: SHARING PHOTOGRAPHS
- They continue on their journey. Suddenly Takata receives a call from Rie, his daughter-in-law. We see her sitting on temple steps. She is dressed in black. Obviously, Kenichi has died. She can barely tell him that Kenichi died last night. (Just think for a moment where the old man was the night before—in a cave with the boy.) She listens for him to say something, and we see a long reaction shot of Takata, but he does not speak. Back to Rie: “Yesterday, during the day, Kenichi was in high spirits. He talked about you and wanted to write you a letter. He spoke. I wrote it down.” Reaction shot of Takata. Then Rie asks if he wants to listen to the letter. At first he says nothing, but when she asks a second time, he answers that he does want to hear it.
- She reads the letter: Rie is shown on the terrace of the temple.
- She is shown in profile. “What do I want to say? What should I say to my father? I’m asking myself. I deeply regret refusing to see you when you came to the hospital. This feeling of regret torments me more than my illness.” Suddenly we hear Kenichi’s voice overlapping and then replacing Rie’s voice. From now on we hear Kenichi reading his letter to his father.
- The van stopped on the side of the road. Takata is not inside. “I’ve been blaming you ever since Mother’s death.”
- Wide shot of Takata, his back to the camera, as he faces a mountain range in the distance. “Without any explanation you moved away to a remote fishing village. I thought then you were trying to avoid facing reality. To be honest, I’ve been trying to escape it as well. When you came to the hospital, I couldn’t face the distance between us.”
- Shot of the hospital corridor. “I never expected that you would ever go to China for me. I was really moved.”
- An empty hospital bed—symbolic of Kenichi’s bed when he was in the hospital? “People have never understood my obsession with the folk operas. I’ve been drawn to them because they mirror my life. I’ve come to realize that I’m the actor behind the mask.
- Wide shot of Rie sitting on the steps at the temple in the cemetery. “I’ve tried to fool myself and everyone close to me. My true feelings have eluded me.
- Close shot of Rie reading the letter. “Until now, I have not allowed myself to acknowledge them.
- Similar shot of Takata as in c. above, but the old man’s silhouetted image is larger here. “Father, it’s not the opera that is important. I now see that loved ones should not mask their true feelings from one another.
- Close shot of Rie as in f. above. “I eagerly wait for your return. Father, I want us to embrace each other once again.”
- Close shot of Takata in similar set up as c. and h. above. Music continues as it has through the scene.
- Reverse angle, close-up of Takata, tears in his eyes, as he stares out at the mountains.
- Prisoners in the recreation hall at the prison—all are applauding. Camera pans left to reveal Takata and Lingo, along with Jasmine. Warden Chen from before walks over and shakes Takata’s hand. The warden notes that he brought in more prisoners this time to cheer Li Jiamin on—to encourage him to sing. Then the warden calls out to Li Jiamin, who stands up and apologizes for not singing the last time. Then Takata addresses the warden: “Thank you for arranging this. It’s very kind of you. Today, however, I am not here to film the opera. Just to meet Mr. Li. May I have a few words with him?” The warden agrees, and Jasmine and Lingo follow Takata over to Li Jiamin. Takata tells him (and Jasmine translates), “I’ve been to Stone Village, I’ve met Yang Yang.” Reaction shot of Li Jiamin. He asks, “You saw Yang Yang?” Takata nods, and Jasmine assures Li Jiamin that Takata is telling the truth. “He is a good boy. He really is.” Reaction shot of Li Jiamin—who begins to cry. Then Takata turns to the warden and asks to show the father some pictures of his little boy. The warden agrees.
- The audience in the recreation hall—including the warden in the first row—all attentive.
- Cut to Takata attaching a cable from the digital camera to the back of the television monitor.
- Reaction shot of Li Jiamin.
- Takata clicking on the first photograph: taken at the outdoor banquet. Three more photos.
- Reaction shot of Li Jiamin. He is crying.
- Close shot of Takata.
- Close shot of the TV screen—three more photos of the boy.
- Reaction shot from the audience. All are attentive.
- Shot of Li Jiamin wiping tears from his eyes.
- Takata watching Li Jiamin.
- Four more photos from the time when the boy ran away and Takata followed him down into the valley.
- Shot of Li Jiamin crying.
- Four shots of other prisoners crying or sniffling.
- Shot of Lingo watching the monitor.
- Seven shots of Yang Yang squatting behind the boulder, and the last one when he laughed after seeing Takata hold his nose and then shake his hand back and forth across his face.
- Shot of Takata. “That’s all.” Jasmine translates.
- Shot of the prisoners, all attentive.
- Takata pulls out the USB plug and the screen goes blue. He winds up the chord.
- Wide shot of the seated prisoners.
- Takata bows to everyone.
- Reverse angle shot. Warden Chen stands up and tells Li Jiamin, “Mr. Takata came a long way to takes these photos for you. Your son is a bright boy. Everyone would agree with me. He is really delightful. You should thank Mr. Takata.” Li Jiamin does so and bows low.
- Takata bows back.
- Reverse angle. Warden Chen asks Li Jiamin, “Can you perform?” Li says, “I’ll do so to the best of my ability.” Jasmine translates. “There is really no need to perform,” he says to the warden. I didn’t come to film the opera today.”
- But the warden is not to be deterred. “I’ve arranged the
band and the crowd. A lot of men in our region can sing mask opera. I’ve
picked some good ones to accompany him. I hope you stay for the
opera.” Jasmine translates.
Of course, Takata says he does not need to film it—and the warden
meets him halfway: you don’t have to film it—just watch it.
ELEVEN: THE MASK OPERA
48. Lingo and another prisoner help dress Li Jiamin. We can see Takata in the first row. Then Li Jiamin is on stage, but he suddenly steps down right in front of Takata, bows, and takes off his mask. “Than you,” he says. “You are a very kind man. So is your son, Kenichi. I’ll perform well. Please film my performance and show it to Kenichi. Please tell him to visit us again.” Jasmine translates, and the camera focuses on Takata’s reaction shot. Is he going to tell him that Kenichi is dead? “I will film your performance. Kenichi would be very pleased.” Li Jiamin bows and thanks him.
49. The performance begins. Warden Chen switches on the disco light and the band strikes up the rhythm. Five of the prisoners dance in front of the band and serve as a chorus. Li Jiamin dances and sings on the stage. Then the five dancers join Li Jiamin on the stage. Reaction shots of Takata filming the scene. Suddenly the sound of the singing is taken away—and instead we hear reed instruments playing, as the dancers continue to move about on the stage. Through a series of dissolves we see the lead dancer on stage and several reaction shots of Takata. Then his reaction shot dissolves to show him in close-up standing on the beach near his cottage, back in Japan, and we see his back to the screen as he faces the ocean. Sea birds fly about. That shot fades to black. Credits.
Film resource written by Robert E. Yahnke
Copyright, Robert E. Yahnke, © 2009
Professor, Univ. of Minnesota
Request permission from the author to reprint this resource--for educational use only