Monday, May 23, 2011

Gong Li in "Zhou Yu's Train"

Watching “Zhou Yu’s Train” one would think that train travel in the People’s Republic of China is a relaxed experience with clean, well maintained, uncrowded passenger cars staffed by polite and helpful railway employees. Another impression would be of unpolluted and prosperous rural areas filled with productive farms and dotted with prosperous towns. In the universe Sun Zhou created factories are filled with light and air, work takes place at a human pace and workers are given the freedom to explore their creativity in producing goods. Additionally the area around Chongyang, the city in which Chen Ching lives and to which Zhou Yu journeys twice a week is surrounded by verdant, unspoiled nature. Much of “Zhou Yu’s Train” was shot in Chongqing which according to “The Guardian” was the fastest growing urban center in the world in 2007. It is also the nearest city to the Three Gorges Dam project which is either the greatest engineering feat of the century or a terrible environmental disaster—or possibly both. Clearly Sun Zhou didn’t want any difficulty with the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television regarding censorship.

This minutia occurred to me because once one gets beyond how beautiful this movie looks and sounds there isn’t much else to engage one’s interest. It does look great, of course, since Gong Li is onscreen for much its running time while Sun Zhou and Wong Yuk, his cinematographer, have a painterly eye for light and shadow. The exterior shots in the countryside are Barry Lyndonesque in their beauty. However very little happens in “Zhou Yu’s Train” and what does happen is annoyingly ambiguous. Not that there is anything wrong with ambiguity in itself, of course—without it we would be missing about 99% of the poetry ever written, for example—but we must care about the characters and what happens to them for it to work. Otherwise, as is the case here, it simply seems careless and self-indulgent, showing that the director isn’t committed to the film and has little respect for its audience.

Zhou Yu, a painter of designs on pottery in a rural factory, meets and falls in love with Chen Ching, an aspiring poet who makes his living as the live-in caretaker of a disused library. For a less sensitive soul she would be the ideal girlfriend: she shows up twice a week to cook dinner and make love, leaves without being asked and thinks his poetry is great. She doesn’t mind her twice weekly, multi-hour journey to get there and tells him that he needn’t bother coming to see her. All of this could easily make sense—in centuries past women swooned over poets the way they do over rock guitarists these days—but we don’t know and never find out enough about Zhou to help us make the connection. And as the movie goes on she becomes less real until at the end it seems that she may have been a fantasy of Chen Ching. Or she may have been a fantasy of Xiu, also played by Gong Li, who is either Chen Ching’s current girlfriend, replacing the departed Zhou or has been in a relationship with him all along and who has whiled away the long hours on the trips to Tibet (!) with a convoluted fantasy involving her lover and an enigmatic, artistic woman who looks just like her but with longer hair. Or she may have been killed in a tragic bus accident, a scene which explains an otherwise incomprehensible image from the beginning of the movie, one which wasn’t that interesting in the first place.

The acting is nothing special, largely because the actors aren’t given with which to work. The score is terrific-- Umebayashi Shigeru has a sure hand with lush, romantic but contained music. The shots of trains crossing bridges, coming out of tunnels or entering a long section of curved track at night, led by a single headlight, are stunning. The mise en scene is beyond reproach—a shot of many-arched stone bridge with the light hitting it perfectly was breathtaking. It is clear that the Ministry of Railways was cooperative in filming.

There are two extremely tame (no more than “PG” rated in Hollywood terms) sex scenes. One of them, between Zhou and Chen is intercut with shots of trains—the meaning, if any, of this escapes me. Gong Li, as always, looks like a goddess. She was almost always costumed in a dress with a short sweater worn over the top of the dress when she was Zhou and in denim jeans and jacket—and with short hair—as Xiu.

A great looking movie but very short on content at least to this western viewer.

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