It seems fair that a film in which one of the major characters is a poet should be poetic itself, so perhaps one shouldn’t complain overmuch about the fact that Sun Zhou’s “Zhou Yu’s Train,” like so many works of verse, is hazy, dreamlike and opaque. Of course, one might observe that’s just another way of saying that it’s pretty much unintelligible. So the question is, do you really want to require logic and meaning when there’s so much loveliness on hand? Especially when the beauty in question is Gong Li, who remains one of the most radiant women to grace the screen?
The answer, unfortunately, is yes. There’s much to admire in Sun’s film, which tells the cryptic story of Zhou Yu (Gong), a female porcelain-painter in Sanming who carries on a long-distance relationship with Chen Qing (Tony Leung Ka-fai), a timid librarian (and aspiring poet) in Chongyang by regularly taking the train to visit him. She tries to assist (quite unsuccesfully) in establishing him as a writer, but the pressure proves too much for him, and he eventually takes a position in distant Tibet. While traveling to Chongyang, moreover, Zhou meets another man, Zhang (Sun Honglei), an earthy veterinarian, with whom she enters a relationship that, it appears, never passes beyond the platonic stage. All of this is presented in fragmentary, non-chronological segments that overlap and blur the narrative. To add to the ambiguity, another woman, Xiu (also played by Gong, though with her long hair cropped), is periodically shown riding the train and commenting on Chen’s affair with Zhou while reading a book titled “Zhou Yu’s Train.” She also visits Chen at his remote posting at the film’s close. (It is Xiu who pronounces the line that’s apparently intended as the theme of the entire piece–“A lover is like a mirror, in which you can see yourself more clearly”–although precisely what light that shines on the action is equally unclear. Only slightly more telling are the occasional shots of train tracks merging with and slipping away from one another, and Chongyang suspension cars gliding past each other’s lines, just as the characters do.) Taken together, the elliptical scenes, enigmatic dialogue and equivocal symbolism suggest that the depiction of the relationship between Zhou and Chen that makes up most of the film might in fact be a total fiction, or alternatively the recollection of an affair Chen had once had with a now-dead woman that threatens his relationship with Xiu. Or are Zhou and Xiu the same woman at different stages of life? As “Zhou Yu’s Train” is structured and shot, any of these readings would seem equally plausible. And in the end, that leaves the picture an emotionally unsatisfactory exercise in style more than a affecting human drama.
If Sun’s film is narratively affected and deliberately obscure, however, it offers compensation in its frequently shimmering visuals and the near-hallucinatory mood the director, working closely with cinematographer Wang Yu, often achieves. Even if you don’t comprehend the purpose behind some moments, it’s still a pleasure to observe them, just as one might enjoy a beautiful but puzzling painting in a gallery. And, of course, Gong is still a luminous screen presence, effortlessly delighting the eye in the various poses she assumes through the course of the film. (Her co-stars don’t match her, with Leung unable to make much of Chen’s passive, dour character and Sun not getting much past a generalized sort of gruffness.) The final issue is whether the picture’s external virtues make up for what it lacks within; and the answer, unhappily, is not quite.