For this sprawling story of estrangement and devotion, Zhang Yimou chose China's Yunnan Province as his setting, a spectacular landscape of canyons, soaring snow-capped mountains and winding switchbacks. Shaped by centuries of wind erosion and tectonic shifts, it is also the China of ancient scroll paintings. Zhang's contemporary protagonist, Gou-ichi Takata (Ken Takakura), is a foreigner to it, an aging Japanese man who speaks no Chinese. He does not arrive in southeastern China to admire its eternal beauty. Takata is in a race against his son's destiny: Ken-ichi is dying, and Takata has come to film an opera for him, one he would have attended if he were not ill. Father and son have not spoken in over a decade, and this is to be Takata's apologia.

When Takata learns that Li Jiamin (playing himself), the opera singer his son admires and the one he has come to film, is serving a two-year jail term, he insists on petitioning government officials for permission to tape inside the prison. His interpreter tells him it is impossible, but Takata prevails by sending a videotape of himself recounting the story of his son's fatal illness to the official in charge of prisons. Takata's odyssey through Yunnan Province in search of Li Jiamin is punctuated by a visit to Stone Village, where he meets the singer's young boy, Yang Yang (Yang Zhenbo). Yang Yang's mother died recently, and the village is raising him until his father, whom he's never met, completes his prison term. Takata photographs the boy with his digital still camera in the hopes that by showing these images to Li Jiamin he will save the absent father from the transgressions of paternity he committed against Ken-ichi.

Through the twists and turns of plot, there is humor and humanity in Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles. Zhang pokes fun at China's government bureaucracy and, with brilliant cinematic understatement, illustrates the misunderstandings that arise from cultural and linguistic differences between Takata and the Chinese of this remote province. Punctilious officials and peasant farmers alike are raised to archetypal proportions, and Zhang, with the capaciousness of Jean Renoir, places them all neatly into his microcosm of the human condition that is Yunnan Province. Despite the wonderful charm of this peek at modern-day China, which isn't modern at all, and the sort of masterly filmmaking one expects of Zhang, the director nevertheless fails to overcome a script that ignores the backstory of the characters, and that agonizingly details minor subplots.

Takakura gives a bravura performance, which is the overriding reason to see Riding Alone, but he's hampered somewhat by the lack of explanation of Takata's abandonment of Ken-ichi. Takakura, one of Japan's film idols, is 76, and he's at the top of his form. Zhang made the film as a vehicle for him, saying in a director's statement that he is the one actor he's always wanted to work with. American audiences will remember Takakura mostly for his performance as Michael Douglas' Japanese counterpart Matsumoto in Black Rain, but genre movie fans will recall his co-starring role in Sydney Pollack's rarely screened The Yakuza opposite Robert Mitchum. The 1974 movie was one of the first "yakuza" or Japanese gangster films by an American director.

In this complex and nuanced film, the director explores the anachronistic presence of cell-phones and cameras in the pastoral landscape of Yunnan, but also the undeniable power of these technologies to influence human emotion. When Takata first attempts to visit his son in the hospital, Ken-ichi refuses to see him; afterward, Rie, his daughter-in-law, thrusts a videotape into Takata's hands and pleads with him to watch it. It is from the tape that Takata learns of his son's past journeys into Yunnan and of his love of Chinese folk opera. On his trip through China, it is Rie's calls to his cell-phone that keep Takata emotionally connected, and it is the cell-phone which allows Takata to reach his interpreter. When it seems that Takata will be stymied by government bureaucracy, it is a videotape that moves one official to grant him permission to film in prison, and it is Takata's still pictures of Yang Yang that lead Li Jiamin to remorsefulness. In the end, however, technology does not grant Takata the redemption he's been seeking during his long ride alone. Only coming home can accomplish that.