Zhou Yu's Train Review

Twice a week Zhou Yu (Gong Li) travels the long train journey from San Ming to Chongyang to be with her lover, Chen Ching (Tony Leung Ka-Fai). Zhou Yu is an artisan, who crafts and paints beautiful porcelain ornaments; Chen Ching is an unpublished poet and Zhou Yu is swept away by the romantic verses he composes for her. Then on one of her train journeys she meets Zhang (Sun Honglei), a vet who despite his roughness and lack of sophistication is nevertheless more attuned to her character, seemingly able to read her life in the painting on one of her ceramics. As Chen Ching draws away from their relationship and becomes harder to grasp onto, Zhou Yu begins an affair with Zhang and is torn between the two men.

Zhou Yu’s Train is a curious film that plays with distance and time, reality and imagination. Zhou Yu’s two lovers are great distances apart, but the journey she makes between them on the train is not a straightforward linear one. As the train runs both ways, so the film likewise runs back and forth and the journey is also broken-up with memories, events that skip back and forth. The viewer has to try to piece together when and how events occur and the way in which they come together, but this is not an easy feat to accomplish. Imagination is often presented as another version of reality - the intangible, the world of the imagination can be as substantial as any ‘real’ event. Zhou Yu desperately tries to reconcile the imagery of Chen Ching’s poetry and his feelings with reality. She looks for a lake that Ching has written about in a poem but when she discovers it, she finds the real Lake Celestial "heartbreaking", not corresponding with the mental image evoked by the poem. Zhang, on the other hand, understands her better than she does herself – "If it's in your heart, it is real - if it’s not then it never will be", he tells her.

For an arthouse film, the actual concept and themes are pretty simple and not at all high-brow. It’s about a woman who is torn between choosing the security of a solid, trustworthy relationship based on reality or striving for the dream of a romantic, less tangible and possibly unattainable love. It’s a typical romantic melodrama scenario that has been dressed-up here with some beautiful photography, an unconventional narrative structure and an obscure and pretentious ending.

If the concept fails to convince that it has the substance to merit this obscure and confusing treatment, Zhou Yu’s Train doesn’t even work on the level of a convincing love story. Individually, performances are good – Gong Li returning to acting after a short sabbatical with no apparent diminution of her acting skills or presence in front of the camera – but the characters remain shallow, poorly developed and insubstantial. The love scenes are beautifully lit and photographed, but they are meaningless empty spectacles, failing to convince, failing to say anything meaningful about the characters, failing to develop or illuminate what the characters are thinking or feeling.

What the film does have to offer though is some absolutely ravishing photography, beautiful lighting and wonderful landscapes of the train crossing the Chinese countryside. In the end though, the abstract poetic meditation and beautiful cinematography just isn't enough. The film doesn’t seem to be quite sure what it is trying to say – whether it favours the dream, the reality or the pseudo-reality of the dream – and the narrative structure seems inappropriate and unnecessary. The ending, which pulls a Suzhou River-style switch on the viewer, leading one to wonder about the reality of anything they have seen in the film, is just puzzling and unsatisfying.

The DVD coming from Media Asia has an anamorphic transfer, which is still not so common with other Hong Kong distributors. The quality however is only slightly better than we have come to expect from Hong Kong DVD releases. Generally, colours are bright and clear with minimal grain but the quality of the print is variable. There are the usual white dust spots and a few other more irritating marks, while occasionally the blacks can look a bit flat and murky in some scenes. There are too many niggly problems to score this highly, but I’m going to be generous because when the photography and the lighting are right, the colours lift the film off the screen and raise it a level alongside Wong Kar-Wai’s In The Mood For Love, both for its sheer aesthetic quality and for its beautiful evocation of mood and location.

The sound, presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 isn’t great. It’s generally flat, muffled and not too clear. It’s just about adequate really.

Subtitles are good, clear, easy to read and removable. I didn’t see any errors in the subtitles at all.

Not a great deal of extras, the Story is the same blurb, in English, that appears on the back of the DVD. With its descriptions of making "mad passionate love", "her longing seems insatiable" and "a torrid affair which takes her to another level of lust", it bears no resemblance whatsoever to what the film is about or the manner in which it is presented. The Cast information is in Chinese only. The Trailer however, presented letterboxed at 1.85:1, is superb. This is one of those trailers like In The Mood For Love, that doesn’t try to tell the story, but presents you with a montage of hauntingly beautiful images and the creation of a mood that makes the film a must-see attraction.

Zhou Yu’s Train has good characters, a fine cast and the director has an interesting way of presenting the story, but at heart the basic idea behind the film is shallow and its presentation is confusing and never really coalesces. The anamorphic transfer on the DVD can look terrific on occasions, showing off the beautiful photography, but ultimately letting it down with too much print damage for a film that is only a year old. A bit of a disappointment as a film and as a DVD.

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