Zhou Yu's Train is the most un-Chinese Chinese movie we've seen in a long time: With its brooding, haunting, sometimes lugubrious atmosphere, and its occasional use of techniques like slow motion and jump cuts, it feels more like an art film from France or Hungary -- its musical score is in triple time, like a waltz -- than a movie from a country whose cinema traditionally has either a historical or a political flavor (and often both).
How much of Zhou Yu's Train is real? How much of its action has already occurred, and is thus fated as we watch it unfold? Writer/director Sun Zhou drops hints along the way, but only hindsight really lets you figure things out. His movie teems with symbolism, beginning with its titular object, a train, which moves, but only back and forth between the same places every day, and only on a track that confines its periphery.
"Returning from place to place, something is bound to happen," says Zhou Yu (Gong Li, China's premier actress), a restive young woman who paints images on porcelain objects at a small factory in northern China, and who doesn't know what she's looking for. Zhang (Sun Hong Lei), a country veterinarian whom she meets on the train, tells her: "If it's in your heart, then it's real."
When Zhang meets Zhou Yu, she's involved with Chen (Tony Leung Ka Fai), a solipsistic poet who lives in a rural town rather far from Zhou Yu's more urban home (hence her semi-weekly train trips to visit him). Zhang is immediately smitten, and he offers to buy a vase with her artwork that she's carrying on the train. Aloof, and clearly damaged -- like the bowl she takes as a gift to Chen -- Zhou Yu coolly smashes the vase that Zhang has just offered to buy.
Alone in the country with Chen, Zhou Yu almost seems happy (or at least content). But Chen is uncertain about their union, and he wants to know what she truly loves: the poems or the man. Meanwhile, Zhang teases her about her romantic idealism, and she teases back with her icy flirtations, which eventually lead to a furtive liaison.
Sun's delicate drama requires a bit of patience and unpacking: His metaphors aren't especially difficult or deep, but like most art films, it unravels slowly, as if to contradict the movement implied by its title. He films Zhou Yu's Train in muted and realistic overcast tones, with none of the color and splendor we've come to expect from recent Chinese cinema. If he wants to remind us that the existential angst and ennui of Western culture and its cinema is universal, then he's done a reasonable job of it. In Mandarin, with subtitles.