Reverting to the sparer, more direct style of “Not One Less,” “The Road Home” and “Happy Times” following his lavish, dreamlike martial arts triumphs “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers,” Zhang Yimou offers a gently moving tear-jerker in this tale of Takata (Ken Takakura), an elderly Japanese man who makes a journey to a remote area of China as a means of attempting a reconciliation with his dying son (Kiichi Nakai). Compared to Zhang’s recent epics, “Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles” is a small film, but it has a large heart.

The title is derived from a solo in a Chinese mask opera, one of the performances that the son, a folklorist, had been planning to film on his next trip to China; he’d expressed a special keenness to document it being sung by a local man (Li Jiamin, a singer who here in effect plays a highly fictionalized version of himself). When his solicitous daughter-in-law (Shinobu Terajima) informs him of his son’s condition and the son refuses even to see him, Takata decides to try to heal the rift between them–occasioned, as we learn, by the old man’s decision to move to a remote fishing village after his wife’s death–by traveling to China and filming Li Jiamin’s performance himself.

The bulk of the picture is devoted to the journey, during which Takata, who speaks no Mandarin, must depend upon translators–Jasmine (Wen Jiang), a helpful young woman, and a less adept local man named Lingo (Qiu Lin)–to try to secure access to the singer, who, he discovers, is serving a prison term for assault. Even after permission is granted by the initially unhelpful or suspicious officials, Takata can’t complete his mission, because Li, distraught over never having made contact with his illegitimate son, cannot perform. Takata determines to go to the even more remote Stone Village to find the boy, Yang-yang (Yang Zhenbo), and bring him to the prison to meet his father. He bonds with the boy when they get lost in the mountainous wilderness, and in the end returns to the prison alone–but with scores of photos of him, as well as a personal burden to bear.

The centerpiece of “Riding Alone” is clearly the juxtaposition of the stories of two fathers trying to make a connection with their sons, with one of them acting as a surrogate for the other while reaching out to his own boy. It’s easy to see how the film could have become terribly mawkish, but Zhang keeps the mood from growing maudlin, deftly mixing humor–as with the translators, or the prison warden (Chen Ziliang) who at first resists allowing the foreigner access to his inmate but in the end proves almost oppressively helpful–with the obviously sentimental elements, as he did in “Not One Less” and “Happy Times.” He’s aided by the remarkable Takatura, who uses restraint and silence beautifully to convey his character’s combination of stoic resignation and absolute conviction. The rest of the cast is excellent as well, with Qiu and Yang in particular effortlessly engaging, and visually the movie, shot by Zhao Ziaoding (in China) and Daisaku Kimura (in Japan, under the direction of Yasuo Furuhata), has a simple sort of elegance that avoids slickness.

There’s little doubt that Zhang’s exquisite martial arts films–the two already released and the forthcoming “Curse of the Golden Flower”–will attract many more viewers that his smaller ones. But it’s in these more personal efforts that the director expresses the more human, though actually no less technically virtuosic, side familiar from his earlier work (like “Red Sorghum,” “Ju Dou,” “Raise the Red Lantern” and “The Story of Qiu Ju”). The touching “Riding Alone” is a worthy addition to the wonderfully varied canon of one of the most remarkable of contemporary filmmakers.