Zhang Yimou, China’s most successful director, is known for his chameleon-like ability to change genres, styles and stories. In the 1990s, Zhang become renowned for his realist style in films like “Not One Less,” tales from China’s poorest rural areas filmed with mostly non-actors. In the early 2000s, Zhang made a mainstream international breakout with “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers,” two opulent, lucid, marital-arts epics. With “Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles,” screening this Thursday in Campbell Hall, Zhang returns to the downbeat realist style that made him famous, and keeps the profound understanding of the human spirit that is the heart of each film he crafts.

“Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles” is the story of Mr. Takata, a humble, elderly Japanese fisherman living out his days on a snow-covered beach. At his daughter-in-law’s request, Takata travels to Tokyo to see his ailing son, who he has not spoken to since a falling-out 10 years ago. After his son refuses to see him, Takata watches a tape of a television program his son filmed. In the video, Takata’s son promises a Chinese opera star that he will return for a performance the following year. Seeing a desperate possibility to understand his son, Takata travels alone, and with no knowledge of Chinese, to Yunnan Province, China, to film the opera performance as a gesture of reconciliation.

Screen legend Ken Takakura – 74 years old in this film, with a tally of some 130 film roles – is perfect in the role of Mr. Takata, the stoic Japanese fisherman. The part was written by Zhang with Takakura in mind, and the character and the actor are indistinguishable from one another. Takakura’s tightlipped, weathered face bears the quiet determination that defines his character, and enunciates the emotions he doesn’t allow himself to speak. Everyone else, from his well-meaning daughter-in-law to the mercurial opera star Li Jainmin perform admirably, especially considering that, in true Zhang fashion, all of the secondary characters are played by first-time actors found on location. Especially amusing is Lin Qiu, the lanky tour guide who, with small town know-how and amusingly rudimentary Japanese helps Takata through every step of his quest.

Although the film has its beginnings in Japan, the movie is entirely Chinese in spirit. With “Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles,” Zhang’s love of his homeland is evident everywhere. From his artistic shots of China’s red desert steppes and green sky to a bustling village banquet underneath sweeping tiled eaves, the film’s message is universal. Despite the openly sentimental premise of the story, the film proceeds with the restraint and earthiness of its main character. And when this restraint erodes into raw feeling when Takata tearfully asks someone else for help for the first time, it is impossible not to be swept along as well.

“Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles,” a UCSB Arts & Lectures presentation, begins Thursday, Feb. 8 at 7:30 p.m. in Campbell Hall.