Among all the actors and actresses to come out of mainland China in recent decades, no one has achieved greater top-of-mind awareness than Gong Li. The daughter of an economics professor from Shenyang, a city in northeastern China, Li originally had her heart set on becoming a professional singer. However, she ended up riding the wave of the Fifth Generation of filmmakers during the mid-Eighties, with her breakthrough role in 1987's "Red Sorghum (Hong gao liang)", which was directed by a then-unknown Zhang Yimou (who most recently helmed "Hero"). "Red Sorghum" became a critical and commercial success and gained a following with both Chinese and international audiences.
Over the next ten years, the professional collaboration and personal relationship between Li and Zhang would flourish and produce some of the most memorable Chinese cinema of the Nineties, including 1990's "Ju Dou", 1991's "Raise the Red Lantern (Da hong deng long gao gao gua)", 1992's "The Story of Qiu Ju (Qiu Ju da guan si)", 1994's "To Live (Huozhe)", and 1995's "Shanghai Triad (Yao a yao yao dao waipo qiao)". However, Li did not limit herself to the work of her beau, as she also made her mark in a number of films by Chen Kaige, including 1993's "Farewell, My Concubine (Ba wang bie ji)", 1995's "Temptress Moon (Feng Yu)", and 1999's "The Emperor and the Assassin (Jing ke ci qin wang)".
However, after completing Sun Zhou's "Breaking the Silence (Piao liang ma ma)" in 1999, Li decided to take a break from filmmaking to spend more time with her husband of three years, a tobacco company executive from Singapore. To the disappointment of Li's fans, it would be another three years before the first lady of Chinese cinema would return to the silver screen, working with director Sun Zhou once again in 2002's "Zhou Yu's Train (Zhou Yu de huo che)", which has just seen an all-region DVD release. Unfortunately, this European-flavored and sometimes surreal exploration of a woman torn between two men ends up jumping the tracks with a challenging narrative, sometimes pretentious execution, and an emotionally muted ending.
Li plays the titular Zhou Yu, a comely porcelain painter from the town of Sanming. She crosses paths with an aspiring poet named Chen Ching played by Tony Leung Kar-fai (no, the other one, seen recently in "Double Vision"), who captures her heart with a poem comparing her beauty to that of Lake Celestial. This then motivates Zhou to take a train ride to the city of Chongyang for twice-weekly consummations of their passionate affair. Zhou also takes an active interest in the writing career of her new boyfriend, raising money to publish his first book and organizing poetry readings on his behalf.
Unfortunately, their relationship ends up being derailed by two obstacles. First, Chen begins feeling smothered by all the attention from Zhou, which makes his involuntary transfer to a new posting in Tibet that much easier. Though Chen leaves her behind, the love-addicted Zhou continues to make the twice-weekly trips to Chongyang, where she strikes up a friendship with a fellow commuter, a veterinarian named Zhang (Sun Hong-lei of "The Road Home") who has amorous yet unspoken intentions.
Complicating this rather run-of-the-mill story of a woman torn between two lovers is an interstitial narrative where Li (in short hair) plays another woman named Xiu. Though the following discussion contains numerous spoilers for those who have not seen the film, it may actually help viewers navigate the labyrinthine narrative and better make sense of the often-conflicting plot points. At first, Xiu appears to be Zhou from a different time period, either in the past or in the future. Furthermore, she wanders through Zhou's stomping grounds, from the train ride to Chongyang to the cable car station on the way to Chen Ching's home, as though she was revisiting her past. However, it is not until the film's last fifteen minutes where this character is actually explained, though the answer is just as maddeningly mystifying.
And to further befuddle viewers, Xiu is briefly shown reading a book entitled "Zhou Yu's Train", which calls into question whether Zhou was a real person or not. And as suggested by a line uttered by one of the characters, where they state that 'what is in your heart is real', Zhou could merely be a figment of Xiu's imagination, through which she has been living her life vicariously.
In addition to the surreal plotting, director Zhou scrambles the story with non-linear storytelling that jumps between the past and present with wild abandon. Unfortunately, it seems that the use of such a structure ends up being merely a crutch to maintain audience interest and create suspense in an otherwise run-of-the-mill romance, which is capped off by an anti-climactic ending befitting an intellectual exercise, as opposed to an emotionally resonant story.
However, on the positive side, the technical credits on display in "Zhou Yu's Train" are rather impressive. The film's landscapes, which include a mix of countryside and urban settings, are beautifully captured by Wang Yu's pristine lensing. The grace of Li's every move is also captured in the film's frequent use of slow motion, which is nicely accompanied by Shigeru Umebayashi's melancholy score. Li is also radiant as ever, and despite the film's exasperating structure, she manages to transfix viewers with her earnest portrayal of a woman head-over-heels in love with an artist who won't commit-- not unlike Li's real-life 8-year romantic entanglement with Zhang Yimou.
While it is a pleasure to see Gong Li back on the big screen, the vehicle by which she has staged her comeback, "Zhou Yu's Train", ends up being a rather pedestrian outing that is complicated only by a non-linear narrative and some metaphysical touches. For those viewers who are up to the challenge of an intellectual puzzle or who are fans of the veteran actress, then "Zhou Yu's Train" might be the ticket. Otherwise, "Zhou Yu's Train" is a slow ride to an unremarkable destination.
This movie is available for order from DVDAsian.com