In a radical change of pace from his special effects-heavy martial-arts blockbusters "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers," Zhang Yimou offers a poignant intergenerational heart-tugger. The iconic Japanese actor Ken Takakura, a sort of Asian Robert Mitchum, stars as Takata, a stoic retiree whose estranged adult son, now critically ill, refuses to let him enter his hospital room. The old man's daughter, playing peacemaker, passes him a videotape of one of his son's visits to China, where he unsuccessfully attempted to record a performance of an ancient folk opera by a legendary singer. To atone for his years of estrangement, Takata travels to China to capture the performance and learn something about the son he has not seen in decades.
Yimou contrasts the prosperous but reserved Japanese with the warmth of the Chinese who can't speak his language but accept him like a brother anyway. Not only are the poor villagers welcoming, throwing him a street feast, even the bureaucrats and warden of the local prison graciously bend the rules to help their visitor. The old man encounters a series of hurdles on the way to his goal, but strikes up a wordless relationship with an adorable local tyke that allows him to channel some of the paternal urges he has suppressed for so long.
The themes are universal (if a touch corny), the rugged Chinese scenery is stupendous, and the performances are touching as a mission inspired by a stern sense of duty evolves into a chance encounter with life-altering love.