SEEKING THE ELDER HERO IN ZHANG YIMOU’S FILM,
RIDING ALONE FOR THOUSANDS OF MILES
(Published in Jung Journal: Culture & Psyche 9 : 3 / Summer 2015)
Until the heroic experience of all people .. . has been thoroughly explored, the myth of the hero will always be incomplete and inaccurate.
Carol Pearson and Katherine Pope
Myths are a breaking through of greater meaning which was not present before.
[The] man who thinks he can live without myth, or outside it, like one uprooted, has no true link either with the past, or with the ancestral life which continues within him, or yet with contemporary human
C. G. Jung
Symbols of Transformation, CW 5
The late years, as we know them now in the twenty-ﬁrst century, are an unprecedented stage of life on the planet, yet we have no ritual and no rich narrative, no hero’s journey to guide us.
C. G. Jung imaginatively envisioned individuation as a lifelong process, furthered by initiations in 20 adolescence and middle age that guide a journey of self-discovery to meet the challenges of major transitions in consciousness. Urged on by our own void, I offer the story of an old man in the ﬁlm, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles (2005), well past sixty, who inspires a provocative model for a transformational journey of discovery and contribution in the late years. Film is a cultural storyteller, historical and futuristic at once, activating an imaginary reality between viewer and 25 screen that creates as it informs. To seek the Elder Hero in ﬁlm and in our lives is to seek a myth of transformation for years of life barely lived by humankind.
Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles is a ﬁlm in which Zhang Yimou, an accomplished and award-winning director of epic ﬁlms and events, lifts a small, personal story to a mythic dimension of transformation for an old man. A father seeks reunion with a son from whom he’s become 30 estranged. The story is a reversal of the well-known and famous mythic search of the son for the father, immediately evoking larger implications. Called a “wizard” by The New York Times, Zhang Yimou broke records around the world with his stunning direction of the opening ceremonies at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Now with Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, he makes inspirational tracks into yet another phenomenon not bound by a single nation, the still largely 35 unknown terrain of old age around the planet.
The ﬁlm begins:
An older Japanese ﬁsherman climbs up from below deck on an old wooden ﬁshing boat docked alongside a snowy, coastal North Japanese village. Buttoned up in an all-weather black jacket with a white scarf and turtleneck, he’s closing up for the day. A few ﬁshermen on an adjacent boat behind him come into focus. One of them calls out in a jovial voice, “How’s the catch today?” Gouichi Takata turns toward them, signals with his arms and speaks few words, “Not bad.” He betrays no sense of a man who’s just traveled many miles by bullet train to Tokyo, only to stand in the eerie blue light of a hospital corridor and hear his ill, estranged son adamantly refuse to see him.
When Takata returns home from the dock, his phone is ringing. Rie, his daughter-in-law, is calling from Tokyo to tell him that his son Kenichi’s condition has worsened and he is now dying. He drops his head in thought and says nothing. Rie sags with grief against a terrace railing, weeping. “My hope for even a simple family meal is disappearing.” Takata remains silent as he listens. The rim of his ﬁshing cap shades his eyes. His lips part and close, mouth opening slightly as he draws a breath, but he utters no words. The conversation ends with a cut to snow-covered rocks. Takata stands alone, silhouetted against a gray sky, staring stoically out into the rough sea. Only his mind speaks: “I’m going to China. I decided this suddenly. I don’t know what’s out there and I’m not good at dealing with people, but I feel compelled to go. I must do something for my dying son.”
Not to Tokyo, but to China. From ﬁrst impression, Gouichi Takata (award-winning Japanese actor Ken Takakura) brings to mind the classic heroic loner making a tough decision he deems necessary. Standing steady, tall, and resolute against the wide skies and open seas of his home, Takata is visually identiﬁed with the relentless rhythm of the tides, the rocking boats, and the day’s catch. A ﬁsherman, he resides in a modest home deﬁned by shelves of books and a teakettle that tell of quiet, reﬂective hours. He portrays the slight discomfort of a man a bit too large for his small residence and a step apart from his community. A black coat and black-brimmed hat that shades his eyes suggest an internality of character. He is used to acting from his own counsel. Takata works solo, apart from other ﬁshermen who work together, hauling in their nets while swapping hard-luck smiles and jokes. A recent conversation with his son’s distraught wife in which she’s told him that his son is more seriously ill than previously thought is on his mind. With his air of self- sufﬁciency, Takata appears as a balanced, mature man who wants to do right by his son. But the primal and naturalistic imagery in the opening scenes of Riding Alone provides clues that Takata’s story is going to go deep, delving into a father-son drama with far-reaching consequences.
Stories of estrangement and efforts of reconciliation between fathers and sons are rooted in ancient tales of all cultures. As Takata stands against a background of ocean waves, the mythic symbolism of the wise old man and the sea is poignantly aroused. C. G. Jung likened the consciousness of an individual to a cork ﬂoating in a vast ocean of unconsciousness and contemplated an evolving integration over a lifetime. Similarly, Ernest Hemingway engraved in Western minds the image of an old ﬁsherman struggling with fate in The Old Man and the Sea (1952). Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles draws upon an ancient Chinese opera for its title and themes of loyalty and reunion, tying old to new.
In our culture, the elderly are envisioned as either looking back in an attempt to recapture youthful energy or weighed down dreaming of escape. Our society’s gloomy beliefs about aging are held in place by a certain “truthiness,” a term coined by Steven Colbert, American political satirist, for truth not dependent on factual data. But as men and women are living longer, healthier lives than ever before, they are actively purging “truthiness” from truth. Emphasizing this disparity, Clint Eastwood, eighty-two, deﬁed a “truthiness” of rigidity in old age from the truth by taking advantage of his stature to risk stand-up comedy and playfully fence with himself on live television at the 2012 Republican National Convention. In real life, he reaches for a new act, while in the ﬁlm Gran Torino (2008), he perpetuates his heroic “make my day” screen image from earlier ﬁlms. Winning acclaim from our youth-oriented culture in this ﬁlm, he’s become the oldest leading man to score number one at the box ofﬁce. Gran Torino, however, perpetuates our youth culture’s determination to deny old age the ability to foment a new identity. It’s an odd case of a screen hero lagging behind his reality.
Confusion about the role of the elder in society is not limited to the silver screen. Erik Erikson, working with his wife Joan, established the famous eight stages of life in Childhood and Society in an attempt to map out human psychosocial development (1963). In the Eriksons’ last book, however, Joan Erikson would admit to having been mistaken in creating only eight stages. Well into her nineties, Joan added a new chapter in The Life Cycle Completed, a “ninth stage” applicable to people entering the same stage of life she was in at the time of writing. “Old age in one’s eighties and nineties,” she writes, “brings with it new demands, reevaluations, and daily difﬁculties .. . To face down despair with faith and appropriate humility is perhaps the wisest course” (1997, 105 – 106). She saw even the nineties as a phase of identity invention.
C. G. Jung’s own experience with individuation suggests that Joan Erikson’s insight with respect to the theory of the late years was itself late in coming. Jung did not live into his nineties, but he did describe individuation as a serious endeavor of self-discovery and renewal of identity that informs life as it is lived:
The years .. . when I pursued the inner images (sic) were the most important time of my life. Everything else is to be derived from this. It began at that time, and the later details hardly matter anymore. My entire life consisted in elaborating what had burst forth from the unconscious and ﬂooded me like an enigmatic stream and threatened to break me. That was the stuff and material for more than only one life. Everything later was merely the outer classiﬁcation, scientiﬁc elaboration, and the integration into life. But the numinous beginning, which contained everything, was then. (2009)
Erik and Joan Erikson viewed the polar nature of each stage of life as creating a sort of
emotional equilibrium. In The Life Cycle Completed, Joan Erikson added a ninth stage in a chapter simply titled “Old Age” (1997). She elaborates the effect of an older person’s “deteriorating body and mind” on the despair that characterizes the eighth stage as leading to yet a new character. Integrity and despair oppose each other in the eighth stage, for example, and navigating the conﬂict between the two fosters individual development and the growth of a more whole person.
Commenting on her own creative surge, brought on in her later years, Joan Erikson similarly notes: “It is important to remember that conﬂict and tension are sources of growth, strength, and commitment” (106). Joan Erikson felt the blossoming of a third act seeded by conﬂicts unique to the late years and was able to begin to document her own Elder Hero’s journey of transformation.
Like the arrival of Joan Erikson’s work, Zhang Yimou’s depiction of the transformational journey of a tradition-bound recluse traveling across the deserts of China offers a mind-bending alternative to prejudices in our own cultural bias toward aging. Takata embodies a classic heroic presence, exhibiting clashing personality traits that dramatize individuation as an enlivening process in the inner life of an elder. Close interior scenes alternate with vast exterior vistas, intimate feelings hide behind public personas, and individual determination deﬁes systemic ofﬁcialdom. Takata is drawn to a task of great effort, crossing over a vast divide of distance, language, and past animosity between Japan and China to bridge the gap with his son. Bucking conventional thinking, Riding Alone declares a shift in perception of old age from preoccupation with closure to the inclusion and embrace of released energies.
According to Jungian analyst John Beebe, images of the senex are historically not handled well in ﬁlm (2008, 59 – 60), dwelling on a stereotype of austerity rather than wholeness. At the outset, Riding Alone’s Takata is no exception. He ﬁts neatly into the archetypal image of the negative senex (Hillman 2005), a man set in his ways who has not spoken to his son in ﬁfteen years. Abiding by a culturally ingrained ethic of emotional silence between men, he let his relationship with his son lapse after his wife died. Only when Rie, Kenichi’s wife, calls and convinces him to leave the northern shores of Japan does he take a train into Tokyo to visit his son in the hospital. There, upon hearing Kenichi telling his wife he doesn’t want to see his father, Takata simply turns and walks out. Rie does not give up as easily. She races after him and, on the sidewalk outside the hospital, presses a videotape into Takata’s hands, begging him to watch it. She hopes that seeing his son on ﬁlm will motivate Takata to visit again. But it doesn’t. The trapped older lead character has become something of a convention in movies. Things people don’t like about themselves—rigidity, closed-mindedness, and self-absorption—are often assigned as deﬁning traits of older men and women.
The video is a TV interview of Kenichi, in which he explains that he was unable to complete research on the ancient Chinese mask opera known as Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles because its primary singer was sick and unable to perform. Instead of encouraging Takata to visit his son again, the video spurs Takata to make a decision ﬁtting his austere character. The decision is prompted by the combined availability of TV, video, and a video recorder that’s installed quickly in Takata’s remote home. From this moment on, technology plays a critical role in creating possibilities and loosening inhibitions for Takata. He deems it necessary to make a bold move that simultaneously attracts and frightens him. He will leave home and travel to China in search of a way to reunite with his son. Symbolically, Takata’s contradictory emotions mark an auspicious moment when the hero hears the call to leave the familiar and venture far away from his homeland on a journey of transformation (Whitmont 1969, 62).
C. G. Jung identiﬁes an emerging, conscious striving for union with such an elusive opposite as a beginning point in the process of individuation (1990, 448 – 449). Takata’s decision to reconcile with his son marks an awakening for him. The gap in his own personality between sensing and expressing his feelings lay quiet, embedded beneath his grasp in a proﬁle of nonconfrontation. Takata’s agitated conﬂict aligns him with “The Call,” the moment of initiation in the traditional hero’s journey (Campbell 1979, 4). From there, the contrast between how Takata experiences himself and how he presents himself intensiﬁes and rises to consciousness as he travels. As a cinematic inspiration for an Elder Hero, Takata takes a road where there is no map—we have not been here before.
Takata travels to China to complete Kenichi’s anthropological task, reasoning that if he collects the missing footage for his son’s project, his son may agree to see him. True to a code of silence and disregard for feelings, Takata only calls his daughter-in-law after he arrives in China and tells her of his decision. He dismisses her obvious disappointment and worries regarding his safety. He doesn’t even mention his desire to reconcile with his son. If he has any feeling about the risks ahead, he hides them. With stoic resolve, he sets off toward the remote Yunnan province to take care of business and ﬁnd and ﬁlm the opera singer missing in Kenichi’s research.
On another level, Takata’s decision launches a seventy-year-old man on a journey usually portrayed by a son who wants reconciliation with his father. Using a role reversal, ﬁlmmaker Zhang Yimou directly invites modern audiences into a cinematic exploration of the hero’s journey in a senior male’s late years. While literature and ﬁlm are replete with youthful heroes, there’s no mythic precedent for the challenge of transforming identity in the years past seventy. These late years have traditionally been idealized as years of the wise man or woman living on the mountain—complete, centered, and fulﬁlled. Elders in youth-oriented ﬁlms are fed cultural prescriptions of regression into unfulﬁlled childhood dreams (The Bucket List, 2007), a retreat into a gentle lifestyle (Driving Miss Daisy, 1989), or escaping to another planet altogether (Cocoon, 1985). Each story remains vivid in memory, offering sentimental escapism. They provide a look at the later years of life from an upbeat perspective, encouraging older people to look on the bright side. They neither show us the challenging years of Joan Erikson nor do they break new ground.
Like younger heroes before him, Takata is propelled by an inner call to action in Riding Alone to break away from the familiar and test himself against great odds. He similarly meets daunting obstacles and turning points on his journey. He could give up and go home. But Takata gains momentum. He’s liked and helped by foreigners, and his insistent manner is laced with honor and respect. He’s innovative, using modern tools for creative communication and inﬂuence. His failures are often the source of empathetic learning and deepen his understanding, rather than estrange him further from others. Ever escalating in emotional awareness as he struggles with severe limitations of time, his destiny becomes tied to those around him. An instinctive decision has sent Takata far beyond a resolution for personal sadness. Seen within an Elder Hero prospective, Takata is a man facing the fate of old age, a larger fear of disconnection in life and in death than any younger hero.
The Elder Hero has crossed two signiﬁcant thresholds. He’s left home and gained empathy. Now he faces a third. He now knows who he is and is, symbolically, in the foreign place where a classic hero, Odysseus, ended his journey. The modern Elder Hero, unlike Odysseus, has many years ahead of him, time to embark on yet another adventure. The quest for an identity in the late years is upon him. He looks for value and meaning in uncharted territory where the conﬂict between integrity and despair brought on by experienced and anticipated loss of life drives the compass. Takata, a pictorial Elder Hero infused by two older masters of their art (director and actor), tackles many obstacles as he travels, dis-identifying with inhibitions and sighting expectations for connection—inner and outer. The form of the hero’s journey holds; the particulars are coming to light as the imaginations of audiences stir. The Elder Hero is emerging.
Film is a medium conducive to the mythic; the epic mode can be teased out and represented literally and tangibly onscreen, rendered vital and energetic by the force of the actors and storytellers. Zhang Yimou, a director famous in America for wuxia epics such as House of Flying Daggers (2004), uses an elevated mode of storytelling in Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles. With consistent cinematographic details throughout the ﬁlm that evoke larger-than-life imagery, Zhang Yimou lifts the small, personal story of an older man seeing reconciliation with his dying son to an Elder Hero’s search for identity and purpose. The story is spurred by unique challenges of the late years and deepened by the resources of a seasoned man. The majestic sweep of arid deserts is suitably captured onscreen, where long shots of sandy plateaus and heat rising against the dawn lend stories an epic, realistic feel. Whereas Zhang Yimou employs a unique and colorful spectrum to heighten the impact of his epics, in Riding Alone his color palette is darker and subtler, creating the effect of an interior as well as exterior adventure.
As Riding Alone annotates and immerses Takata’s journey with spacious landscape imagery, the audience identiﬁes with his status as a hero whose horizons are expanding rather than narrowing. Western imagery lends stature and credence to an emerging myth of an Elder Hero by appropriating traits normally reserved for its genre-speciﬁc characters and by invoking the cinematic landscapes of American Westerns. Like Gary Cooper in High Noon (1952) or Charles Bronson in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Takata creates a striking ﬁgure in black against the open sky at the beginning of the ﬁlm. His means of travel are no less symbolic. The bullet train that takes him from his remote village to the metropolis of Tokyo seems a technological face-lift of the Western hero’s arrival into town. Later, a camera high overhead shoots a deep, ﬂat shot of a white van carrying Takata down a serpentine highway toward the remote Stone Village, a stand-in for the white steed favored by so many good-guy cowboys.
Typically, young heroes journey into a deeper trust of themselves, placing faith in some
interior “force” that will be with them upon encountering danger. Middle-aged heroes dig into buried, often repressed capabilities to renew their spirit for the road ahead. But the Elder Hero encounters a balancing act peculiar to the late years, seesawing between internal states of dread and desire. He’s up against the certainty of death and endings, burdened with cultural negativities about both. Taking clues from Takata’s responsiveness in Riding Alone, however, the compression of time at the end of life can force, like a cactus ﬂower, a blossoming. A courageous leap can lead to a series of events that heighten chances of personal change and meaningful connections. This storied deployment of vision for the late years is timely for a generation such as ours wanting to ﬁnd signiﬁcance in years stolen from time itself.
It is common for Hollywood’s aging heroes to magically reclaim their youthful vigor to face new challenges—Eastwood’s character in Heartbreak Ridge (1986) calls upon his soldiering skills from the Korean War; Sylvester Stallone dons his gloves once again in Rocky Balboa (2006). But for Zhang Yimou’s Takata, the wisdom and experience of a matured man provide laser beams of light capable of cutting down formidable obstacles. He sees that external goals require the dismantling of internal emotional defenses that have, in fact, proven quite effective in his earlier years. Holding dear persistence, stubborn belief in himself and hard work, Takata presses for a way to integrate what he doesn’t understand with what he’s trying to accomplish. His quest for truth beyond himself will prove critical to his transformation.
On the cutting edge in 2005, Riding Alone anticipates a twenty-ﬁrst century merger of elder imagination and unprecedented technological outreach. When Riding Alone puts modern technology in the hands of its elder protagonist, the potential for life-giving truths in old age takes on captivating prospects. One indispensable device that features prominently in the plot-arc of this Elder Hero’s journey is the cell phone. At ﬁrst, Takata receives news via letter and landline phone. While travel and communication in the outback of China were possible in earlier years, a cell phone empowers him. He can talk with his daughter-in-law back in Japan and negotiate with a tour guide ofﬁce and reach Jasmine, his young woman tour guide and expert translator, on his cell phone as he meets linguistic barriers. Even in an extremely remote Chinese province, stymied by confusion, all Takata needs is one spot of reception on a high rooftop to be on his way.
When obstacles pose threats of an inability to communicate, the cell phone allows a reception of emotion as well as understanding. Obstacles become hurdles where an invitation to leap is felt. Takata can hear the timbre of Rie’s voice on the cell phone as she pleads with him across the great distance and take in Jasmine’s trepidation as she advises him from an ofﬁce hundreds of miles away. Previous slower and less sensitive methods of communication would have left Takata sequestered by time and timeliness, furthering instead of healing estrangement. The cell phone acts as a feminine presence and conduit, facilitating communication and helping him to overcome his defensive mode of detachment. Cell phone in hand, he can stay connected as he travels, and opposites are continually constellated in the moment. In effect, Takata is elevated into a ﬂuidity of motion that narrows the gap between desire and execution and overcomes physical limitations. The cell phone keeps a dynamic set of forces in motion, transcending differences and facilitating transformation.
Cell phones alone cannot solve all our Elder Hero’s problems. His patience will be tried, his reﬂective maturity and vault of experience tested. The extent to which Takata is an outsider mirrors an interior psyche where emotional estrangement creates a crisis of identity. As an outsider, Takata has no power and no standing with the local hierarchy, a formidable wall of bureaucracy. When Takata calls Jasmine and voices a desire to convince the Chinese Ofﬁce of Foreign Affairs to allow him into a prison where the opera singer he needs to ﬁlm is being held as a criminal, Jasmine shakes her head and says she can’t help him. A local guide named Lingo offers to help Takata, but he’s not ﬂuent in Japanese and while he’s accommodating and will submit the application, he cannot make immediate translations. Lingo voices despair, shrugging responsibility for Takata’s chances: “They’ll never let you in because you’re a foreigner.” Against such obstacles of encrusted regulations, an Elder Hero—overly armed with logical methods of principle and protocol—is as likely to fail as a younger hero facing a mythical dragon.
Takata falls back on persistence, making a formal request. But as Takata waits for the inevitable refusal, he’s not passive. He surveys the Ofﬁce of Foreign Affairs. Hanging on the walls are many red silk banners, printed with large golden letters of tribute. The refusal comes but Takata goes forward with a second request. This time he engages Lingo’s help. He embellishes his request with a network of technological devices, creating a ceremony of appeal using the red banners. First, he ﬁlms himself on his small camcorder. Then, for translation, he calls Jasmine via cell phone and has her make the translation to Lingo. Next, he sends Lingo, with videotape in hand, to the bureaucrats who agree to watch the tape on an old TV monitor. Technology allows Takata’s urgency to be delivered in person, using personal appeal in his request for an exception to their rules. Takata not only alters traditional protocol into a completely innovative approach, he also effectively bypasses invisible bureaucratic blockages. Such effective communication would not be possible without his black bag of tech tricks, his team, his transforming self. The Elder Hero can’t be dated—he corresponds with the times and, from the unfamiliar, evokes what’s yet to be discovered.
Takata’s persistence and technology come together in what can be considered something of a coniunctio. Technology in the hands of an Elder Hero who knows he must escape subjectivity induces inventiveness, often leveling the playing ﬁeld and bringing forth unexpected success. When conventional methods are blocked, Takata responds creatively, using what is available to him and moving toward greater integration of inner and outer resources. Not only does Takata overcome language barriers, he also gains a range of effective emotional expression that surprises him. Technology is moving Takata forward, past his inhibitions and toward a growing identiﬁcation with his anima—feminine aspects of himself set aside early in life. As the Elder Hero moves away from constriction, interactions become creative, communication becomes more complex, and emotional direction more evident. He takes advantage of modern devices to collapse time, glide over impassible terrain, and—almost imperceptibly—manifest emotional connections from internal visions. It is the mythmaking process at work, Takata’s inner necessity fueling the invention of a new identity. He’s become an innovator, putting things together in a new way to serve his purpose and achieve his goals. On the Elder Hero’s journey, obstacles spur invention.
Unique to human life is the impulse to create identity, a sense of self that comes from internal urgings to meet life’s challenges. C. G. Jung identiﬁed this striving as a process of individuation that serves an evolutionary purpose. Yet a hero’s journey in the late years has eluded visionaries of ﬁlm and literature until now. Following Zhang Yimou’s vision of Takata in Riding Alone, the Elder Hero, unlike a younger hero, beneﬁts from a merger with the unconscious, effectively reaching out to strangers and changing his inner, emotional landscape to one of greater empathy. Perhaps discovery of a new myth is entwined with the discovery of new modes of communication and ways to ﬁnd things out. Without the technology of recent years creating a new whole to be discovered, a hero seeking the mysteries of the late years may have continued to lay dormant. To communicate across great distances despite language barriers and across cultural divides with ease is a social, birthing phenomenon of technology that becomes a phenomenon of individuation. What was just beginning to open new pathways of discovery in 2005 is now a tool of facilitation, readying the late years for the emergence of a truer identity of the elder in society.
For every triumph or step forward on solid ground, the hero’s journey contains pitfalls and confrontations. The shadow ﬁgure in myth marks an emotional opposite to the hero, distinguishing a dynamic of alchemical movement between them and denoting the arrival of higher integration. In Riding Alone, there are numerous dramatizations of opposites marking Takata’s path through increasingly impactful emotional shifts. While recording himself requesting permission to ﬁlm Li Jiamin in prison, Takata cites his son’s critical condition as the reason for his urgent plea. He chokes up, revealing tears, ones he may not have been able to shed since childhood. Later, his visit to the prison provokes a further necessity for imaginative leaps and soulful realizations. In prison, where archetypal intersections of good and evil are so vivid, Takata looks across the room at Li Jiamin, a man who is his mirror opposite. Li Jiamin, a prisoner appearing in costume to sing for the opera to be performed for Takata, wears a literal mask as Takata wears a mask of practiced performance to hide his emotions. In Li Jiamin, Takata meets his “shadow,” the Jungian projection of the qualities he has disowned and repressed, in full dress (Jung 1972, 183).
Symbolically, the story of reconciliation between father and son has become equal to a search for reconciliation of cosmic opposites—awakening emotions pose a strong contrast to ingrained legacies of conduct. Prior to Takata’s encounter with Li Jiamin, the retrieval of a video performance of Li Jiamin singing the opera is all Takata desires. It fulﬁlls his planned effort to make peace with his dying son by bringing back a missing piece of his acclaimed research. Then, before Takata can ﬁlm the actor, Li Jiamin breaks down into a highly demonstrative emotional state and claims he cannot sing because he is too distraught over never being able to see his own son again. Admiring the singer silently, Takata muses: “He’s a fortunate man. If only I had the courage he has, my relationship with my son would be different.”
Moved by Li Jiamin’s display of emotion, Takata makes an offer to retrieve the boy as a way to appease Li Jiamin. For the ﬁrst time, Takata relates to a situation outside himself as similar to his own and gets the sense that emotional distance can be as prohibitive as physical distance. He wonders to himself whether Li Jiamin’s estrangement from his son, like his own, is more than physical. But he does not recognize this empathic reaction as a major fork in the road he has been following. Unknowingly, as he steps away from direct passage to his goal, he steps forward toward a profound realization of a more whole self. Whether this is an evolutionary move toward a new phase of identity emerging in late years or a blooming, brought about by integration of disowned aspects of self pressed by time to emerge, he’s an Elder Hero at work.
The quest to ﬁnd Li Jiamin’s son leads to a surprising emotional discovery for Takata. His journey into the dry backlands of China awakens a duality of feeling and insight that he does not yet know how to resolve. He is the lone hero, urged onward by desires that nobody else—not Jasmine or even Rie—can understand fully. Having driven to Stone Village and found the boy, Takata attempts to return to the prison with him. At this point, task-oriented steps still govern Takata’s actions. Return the boy, tape the performance, and patch things up with his own son. But as an emerging Elder Hero, the question of what lies beyond such accomplishments is beginning to resound. Answers to Takata’s internal questions about the place of emotion within a patriarchal system of control lie in an unexpected playful exchange with Li Jiamin’s son, Yang Yang.
Yang Yang slips away from Takata as they leave Stone Village, rebelling against a return to a father he doesn’t know. He runs down into a canyon of rising rock spires and no clear pathways where he quickly disappears. Takata goes after him, musing to himself that the chase after Yang Yang reminds him how lost he’s felt trying to connect with his own son. When they meet up in the bottom of the canyon, the boy is wary of the man’s intentions, much like Takata’s own son who rejected him in the hospital. Now, however, technology spurs a moment of coniunctio for the Elder Hero. Using a digital camera to take a picture, Takata shows the boy what he looks like.
An exchange of laughter between Takata and the boy brings forward a completely new dimension of Takata’s character. The pair play and laugh, using Takata’s tech-toys to break down barriers of distrust. As night falls, the boy falls asleep in his lap and Takata ruminates on the similarities between himself and Li Jiamin, his shadowy alter ego. He knows now that even if he brings Yang back to his father, the divide between them would not shrink without a change in the father. Bonding with Yang Yang in the labyrinthine canyon ignites an emergent vision in Takata as a man who’s resolving an inner conﬂict critical to healing the outer conﬂict with his son.
Once Takata internalizes Yang Yang’s perspective, he helps him stay with his community and leaves Stone Village a friend. Rather quickly, technology again plays a critical role in Takata’s movement toward a larger integration and change in identity. Like Hermes delivering an energetic missile, Takata receives a cell-phone call of great consequence en route back to the prison. Rie calls Takata to tell him of Kenichi’s death and to share a letter Kenichi wrote to his father before he died. She reads Kenichi’s letter thanking his father for his effort to help him and forgives him, making his own apologies for letting their relationship lapse. With ﬁlm’s wondrous ability to induce empathic experiences, Kenichi’s voice comes alive in Takata’s mind as he stands at the nadir of his mythic quest before a glowing mountain and contemplates a profound paradox. Perhaps this is the essence of the Elder Hero’s conquest: he has failed to accomplish his task but, somehow, achieved his goal. He is at peace with his son, reunited emotionally as a consequence of searching beyond his midlife identity. The profound mythic image of man and mountain merges in a pinnacle of earthly grief and joy. Takata’s son opened his heart to his father because the father made the effort to connect, to walk in his shoes; the father’s gesture allows the son to see his father in a new light.
But Takata is once again at a choice point in his journey. Does he return to Li Jiamin, despite the fact that the video has lost purpose, or does he go home, his journey concluded with the death of his son? Takata weeps. When deep grief meets Takata on the road back to the prison, a decision even more surprising than his ﬁrst occurs. Takata decides to continue. Though he realizes his journey is no longer related to his son, he somehow feels compelled to complete a promise to a man he doesn’t know. Takata is now a pictorial “stand in” for the Elder Hero, returning to Li Jiamin to tell him in person what happened with Yang Yang. Identiﬁcation with another’s pain is the small story; the larger story lies in his return as a prescient sign of a treasure found buried in humanity’s later years. What he doesn’t realize, can’t realize until he completes the next step, is that he, in effect, carries the mythical boon of his emotional transformation into a space far from his residence that’s become home.
Upon his return to Li Jiamin, Takata shares the news of Yang Yang’s refusal to see his father. It is a sad moment, but Takata, for the last time, harnesses the creative powers of technology, fulﬁlling his promise and bringing the boy’s presence to the prison. He shows the entire prison population photos of Yang Yang on a television screen. The screening has an unexpected effect; the prisoners—each and all a father or a son—begin to weep after seeing and feeling the plight of estrangement. Symbolically, the return is representative of the ﬁnal stage of the revelatory hero’s journey, in which mythologist Joseph Campbell outlines the hero bringing his ﬁndings back from his travels (a “boon”) to share with the people (1972, 189 – 192). In the end, Li Jiamin comes forward to meet Takata, each man shedding the mask that’s inhibited him from being whole. Li Jiamin bows to Takata and solicits him to ﬁlm the mask opera while he sings. Takata agrees, and though he no longer needs the ﬁlm, the exchange between the two men lifts a ﬁnal barrier to reconciliation that reaches beyond the personal. It is the nadir, where the protagonist’s transformation becomes as essential as the passage of day into night. Li Jiamin himself is moved to the point of transformation—once hunched and resistant, Li Jiamin steps onstage in all his regalia, completely immersed in the character of Guan Yu, and sings.
As Takata records the ancient mask opera, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, director Zhang Yimou illuminates the action using swirling, ﬁery special effects that recall an alchemical mixing—it is a coming together of the old and the new, the individual and society. If it is Takata who brings a new, elder gift of societal healing back to the prison, then it is Zhang Yimou who “brings it” to us, the audience. Zhang Yimou, who was ﬁfty-six at the beginning of the production of Riding Alone in 2002, cast Ken Takakura (then seventy-ﬁve, almost old enough to be Zhang Yimou’s father) as Gouichi Takata. The fact that the ﬁction the two ﬁlmmakers set out to build is so close to reality—son drawing father into a role that takes him on a journey beyond the borders of tradition—is perhaps the gift of a visionary director thinking ahead to his own late years. To put it in plain terms, the plot concerns an old man traveling far from his home who, able to creatively engage new elements of technology, is able to connect with others across vast distances, challenging boundaries of estrangement. The meaning of the ﬁlm is enhanced by its congruent realities with Zhang Yimou’s life. Since Riding Alone was made, Zhang Yimou orchestrated the stunning 2008 Olympic opening ceremonies in Beijing, sweeping continents into an unprecedented aesthetic embrace.
C. G. Jung’s concept of synchronicity—the perception that seemingly unrelated, acausal events are inextricably linked by meaning—leads to a psychic inclusiveness that expands reality for those who grasp it (Jung 1965, 138, 197). Its wholeness of vision, one that encompasses an entire individual life, is at the heart of Jung’s concept, as well as one that expands our understanding of this ﬁlm. As ideas of men and women going through changes in identity in their later years begin to take hold, old forms give way to new. Hence the implication that Riding Alone returns to and transforms the essence of loyalty in the folk opera of the same name.
The credible energy of Riding Alone as a ﬁlm creating a new reality of identity for the later years is enhanced by the meaningful correspondence between ﬁlmmakers and ﬁctional characters. In other words, the ﬁlm reﬂects changing prospects of deeper relationships, lessened isolation, and the discovery of meaning for an older generation. What separates Zhang Yimou’s ﬁlm from typical depictions of the hero’s journey—as well as an old man’s quest from a young hero’s—is that the whole individual life, not the ego, opens from beginning to end in elder transformation.
When Zhang Yimou puts his “bag of tricks” in the hands of an elder protagonist, he triggers new images of old age, refreshed by a ﬁlmic language sculpted from thin air. Together they light a way still dark. With their cameras rolling, these Elder Heroes—the ﬁctional Takata, the other quite real Zhang Yimou—lift an ancient tradition of persevering wisdom to a contemporary triumph of compassion. Takata is no longer cut off from society at large. He is a part of it, or perhaps a step ahead of it, sharing in the revelations of sadness, determination, and resolution that the mask opera itself presents as encoded in the annals of history. Takata’s simple goal to express his feelings expands into an Elder Hero’s boon. A process of individuation spans the entire ﬁlm, begun in an auspicious moment of inner conﬂict and bookended by scenes of calm reﬂection on the shores of the rough and wild sea. The Elder Hero transformation is not egoistic, but holistic. He returns to where he began but comes back deeper, larger within himself, full circle back to the ancient roots from which the ﬁlm’s mythology originated.
As we watch a ﬁlm with mythic dimensions like Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles that holds personal meaning for us as we come of age in the late years, we’re involved in the mythmaking process. We feel intensely hooked into history as human beings, and our lives gain signiﬁcance because we’re actively participating in the creation of a crucial aspect of humanity. As those of us passing sixty or seventy years forge ahead into territory rarely lived, we are part of a fabled beginning that we don’t want to miss by not noticing the signs of an emerging myth for our late years. In such a youth-oriented culture, it is sometimes hard for young and old to see that elders contain valuable, untapped resources for tomorrow’s challenges. But a few visionary ﬁlmmakers are picking up the edges of pages to come. We, as explorers of the elder identity, are in the beginning of a time that will later be an origin for others. When we respond personally to ﬁlms that carry larger visions of aging, we are rejecting today’s focus on stale, gloomy, and prejudiced stereotypes. Instead we are participating, like the ancient Greeks, in taking myth seriously as a map beneath appearances. In discovering a new identity for the Elder Hero, Riding Alone challenges not only those who are old enough to identify personally with the protagonist but also those who are merely approaching, or watching from a distance, their own oncoming elder self. Bringing foundational myths to life inspires a mystique of possibility in those who choose to accept the boon these stories provide. The Elder Hero’s journey in Riding Alone encourages us to imagine a different life for ourselves in the late years, to delve into the mystery of transformation—one more time—and anticipate the discovery of gifts for an expanding, expectant world.
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JANE ALEXANDER STEWART, PhD, a psychologist, is the author of numerous articles that have appeared in newsletters, journals, and books analyzing mythic themes in ﬁlm. Her popular essay “The Feminine Hero in The Silence of the Lambs,” which was originally published in The San Francisco Jung Institute Library Journal
(vol. 14, no. 3, 1995), also appeared in The Soul of Popular Culture, edited by Mary Kittelson (Open Court, 510
1998) and The Presence of the Feminine in Film, by Virginia Apperson and John Beebe (Cambridge Scholars
Publishing, 2008) as well as in The British Association of Psychological Types Quarterly (1996) and the
National Organization of Women Times. Currently, she is a staff writer reviewing ﬁlms for Newtopia
Magazine (www.NewtopiaMagazine.wordpress.com). She has presented “Myth in Film, Myth in Your Life” seminars at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The University of Alabama, and Assisi Institute. She lives in Los Angeles. Correspondence: Jane@Cinemashrink.com. Website: www.Cinemashrink.com.
This essay analyzes Zhang Yimou’s 2005 ﬁlm Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles as a blueprint for the developing myth of the Elder Hero’s journey—a new take on the late years of life. Mythic imagery lifts a father’s grief into a driving force for personal and social change as modern technology enables the Elder Hero to cross linguistic and cultural barriers to heal his relationship with his estranged, dying son. For times of
unprecedented longevity, the ﬁlm ushers in a mythic vision of emerging resources and resourcefulness from an aging population that inspires a sense of purpose in the viewer.
KEY WORDS – aging, Elder Hero, film, hero’s journey, late years, longevity, modern Chinese film, mythical cinema, mythmaking, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, elders and technology, elder creativity, elder transformation, symbolic cinematography, Ken Takakura, Zhang Yimou
(This is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis in Jung Journal on August, 2015, available online: http://wwww.tandfonline.com/10.1080/19342039.2015.1053377)