Zhou Yu’s Train (2002) Movie Review

(Movie Review by Edward Lee) Love drives human beings wild. Ever since the first two people fell in love, love has been full of equal parts splendor and monotony, passion and indifference, sanity and danger, and loyalty and treachery. Despite what love does — despite how attached we grow to one another or the challenges we face as a result of — we inevitably lose it to something or someone else. In the cruelest possible scenario, we lose our love to time, and a scar grows hard and thick across our hearts as we promise, “Never again, never again.”

Still, we’re a foolish lot. We find love again (or it finds us), and it takes us back into its feverish grip with our blessings. We love again and again and again. With each new love, we grow only more optimistic that we’ll find tomorrow and the day after, each time searching with a simple hope that we’ll experience the tiniest fraction of what we felt that very first time. Of course it doesn’t always work out that way, but we try nevertheless.

Chen Ching (Tony Leung Ka Fai, recently in Fruit Chan’s “Dumplings”) is a poet who composes almost lyrical works on the topic of love. It’s on the strength of Ching’s written words that Zhou Yu (Gong Li) falls for him sight unseen. Intent on finding him, Zhou takes off on her own adventure, riding the train to Ching’s hometown, where she manages to track him down at a local poetry reading. As fate would have it, he’s instantly attracted to her as well, and the two strangers decide to act on their desires. Since they live in towns far apart, they agree to meet twice a week, and each time Zhou must take the same train to see him.

During one of her trips to Ching, Zhou is accidentally bumped into by Dr. Zhang Jiang (Sun Honglei), a slightly unkempt but humbled veterinarian who breaks a vase she is carrying to her lover. The good doctor is perhaps everything that Zhou’s revered poet isn’t: rough around the edges, somewhat extroverted, and decidedly fixed in his opinions. Interested in her, he strikes up a conversation (what man wouldn’t?), and despite her rebuffs, he forces himself into her life, first trying to respect her affections for Ching, and then playing on them. His persistence is enough to arouse her unexpected fascination, forcing Zhou to spend the rest of her days — so far as the picture is concerned — torn between two lovers in a wondrous dreamlike state.

“Zhou Yu’s Train” is the type of film that may require repeat viewing in order to take in all that the story offers. The story examines the classic love triangle — the collision of three complex relationships — and it isn’t necessarily told in the most accessible fashion. It’s complicated on many levels, and is about the minds of two entirely different men, as well as the minds of two entirely different women (Zhou and Xiu, the film’s narrator, also played by Gong Li). It’s about what propels each of these characters to do the wild, crazy, and unpredictable things that they do, all in the name of love.

While one could hardly argue with the notion that there are parts of the film which appears slightly uneven or, at least mildly out of context, the film still musters a perspective worth the view, which is that if you blink in life, you might miss something far more important, far better explored and far more endearing. The film explores this theme with its visuals, most notably the rapidly passing countryside through the window of the train that Zhou travels in. Also, it’s easy to argue that what’s happening in the lives of these characters cannot be fully appreciated until the film’s final moments.

Regardless of the outcome, the casual viewer may be puzzled, but what’s perfectly clear is Gong Li’s mastery of playing fully developed, thinking female characters. As well, Sun Honglei’s breakthrough performance should give him plenty of future work. They are both excellent in “Zhou Yu’s Train”, a tale that is more about the journey rather than the destination. In the interest of her sanity, Zhou seeks the answers to questions that plague us all: am I loved, will I be loved, and what does it mean to have been loved?

Of course the best scenery of them all is Gong Li herself, who was recently in Wong-Kar Wai’s “2046”, and will soon be seen in Rob Marshall’s “Memoirs of a Geisha” alongside Zhang Ziyi in both women’s Hollywood debut. As has been the case for cinema lovers worldwide since she rose to prominence with Zhang Yimou’s “Raise the Red Lantern,” Li exemplifies the same kind of irrepressible screen charm most often reserved for Hollywood’s legendary film actresses. Every frame she occupies is draped in a kind of regal beauty, an effortless grace meant to be seen and appreciated in each of her big and small moments onscreen. If you’re a fan of her work, then “Train” is definitely your kind of ride.

Director Sun Zhou sacrifices ‘the easy way out’ in telling this story because, in matters of the heart, there are no easy ways. Love has never been about moving from Point A to Point B, but rather the bittersweet passage from one uncharted human heart to another.

Zhou Sun (director) / Cun Be, Zhou Sun, Mei Zhang (screenplay)
CAST: Li Gong …. Zhou Yu
Tony Leung Ka Fai …. Chen Qing
Honglei Sun …. Zhang Qiang

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