A tired Japanese man, Takata, surveys a remote, rocky coastline, one awash in cold grays and dour shadows. In the city, his estranged son lays in a hospital bed—desperately ill, he refuses to see his fisherman father. But as his son's condition worsens, Takata decides to set out on a journey: With a video camera, a cell phone, and a baffled interpreter or two, he ventures into rural China, hoping to record a rare performance that his son is unable to witness in person.

For director Zhang Yimou, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles is a different sort of film—or it's different, at least, from the movies he's been making of late. Though he's directed a slew of fine Chinese films (most notably 1991's Raise the Red Lantern) Zhang's earned a reputation in the past few years as the maker of sumptuous martial arts epics like Hero and House of Flying Daggers. These films—populated with the surreally photogenic visages of Zhang Ziyi and Takeshi Kaneshiro, decorated with opulent sets and costumes, and shot with Zhao Xiaoding's sweeping cinematography—have been as epic and beautiful as they are impermanent and fantastic.

But here: cell phones instead of magic swords, melancholic old men in lieu of soaring kung fu masters. It's a dissimilar story, but in some ways a more powerful one: While Zhang is still enraptured with his visuals (Miles' desert landscapes and utilitarian architecture are shot with a beauty few but Zhang and Zhao could offer), here he's more fascinated by the inner workings of his characters. In particular, Takata's hardened visage belies desperation, an emotional undercurrent so strong that it threatens to engulf the man unless he accomplishes his increasingly arbitrary and difficult task. Much of this is due to a striking performance from Ken Takakura, whose eyes seem to hover between tears and cool observation; a model of stoic restraint, one nevertheless feels as if they intimately know Takata by the film's end credits.

As Miles progresses, cracks appear in Zhang's direction, as well as the script (by Zhang and Zou Jingzhi)—some moments feel clunky, bits and pieces drag. But in total, the film's two things, one expected and one not. Expected: The film's visually breathtaking. Not so much: On a smaller, more personal level, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles is sharply affecting—a moving, patient study of emotions and troubles both modern and unchanging. And all without a kung fu assassin in sight.