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Its furnaces burning overtime, Zhou Yu's Train still manages to earn its keep by smartly showcasing Gong Li's enormous reserve of acting chops and sizzle.
Zhou Yu’s Train is a beautifully conducted mess; its lush, serenading images of the countryside and lyrical performances doomed by rambling, existential squalor and too-liberal use of hit-or-miss cinematic devices such as the slo-mo, the maudlin classical score and the flashback. Underneath this needlessly convoluted art-school exercise, however, is a pointedly compelling love story that brims with immediacy and despair; its cathartic pulse exploding from the well-worn parameters that director Sun Zhou seem intent on wallowing in. This is, in no small part, due to the haunting presence of China’s own Meryl Streep—the iconic, larger-than-life Gong Li, who has made a habit out of breathing gravitas into films otherwise devoid of it (See the similarly lethargic Temptress Moon).
Much has been made of the successful liaison (both onscreen and off) between Li and China film maverick Zhang Yimou, but while the latter chooses to dwell in the realm of subliminal propaganda (at least lately), the former flexes her acting might in ways subtler and more communicable to one’s everyday inclinations. Here, she plays the simultaneously exasperating and indispensable Zhou Yu, whose ravages of desire and feminine wiles are besieged by two polar opposites—the needy, melodramatic Chen Qing and the more hardened Zhang Qiang.
The first is a prospective poet with about as much self-esteem as common sense, the second a veterinarian who has no trouble delivering ham-fisted tropes (“Destiny—it lies in the palm of your hands”), but acts like a fish out of water when forced to confront his own feelings of inadequacy. Instead, he relies on a variety of ploys, anywhere from the I-like-your-work-can-we-get-to-know-each-other to the staggering-drunkard-who-makes-awkward-advances-because-he-doesn’t-know-any-better. Essentially, it’s his way of testing the market without having to actually buy any shares. At least, in the beginning. Zhang Qiang’s character (played with delicate restraint by Sun Honglei) starts the film as a bit of a creep, but takes a few leaps and bounds throughout before finally settling in as a man who means well, but remains shackled by his inarticulate passions. Conversely, Chen Qing (the soft-spoken Tony Leung Ka Fai) initially sweeps Zhou Yu off her feet with his poetic grace and unassuming manner, but it isn’t long before he (and she) realizes that there’s the poet and then, there’s the man. Unfortunately, the man is somewhat amiss. Making it all window-dressing, of course, is the tragic, looming figure of Zhou Yu, a complex swirl of lasciviousness, pent-up anxiety and self-destructiveness inviting both ridicule and pathos in equal doses.
There’s also a Zhou Yu lookalike (also Gong Li, but with short hair) who adds little to the film outside of head-scratching and a gratuitous narrative voice. And lots of unwieldy metaphors about estrangement and escapism, represented by the ongoing blur of trains and the ironic convenience of having to commute between lovers. The point being that Sun Zhou is much more comfortable around mussed up, highfalutin gestures than the actual art of storytelling itself. And yet, we do have to give him credit for not completely derailing this train; by making some prudent casting calls and distracting us with arresting visuals, he demonstrates that, if nothing else, he’s a conductor who trudges full-steam ahead.
Date Posted: 8/20/2004