ZHOU YU’S TRAIN
Directed by Sun Zhou
Written by Sun Zhou, Bei Cun, Zhang Mei
Based on a novel by an unidentified author
This is a review where you really need to read the entire article. If you just skim the beginning, you’re not going to know where I stand on the film and might end up embarrassing yourself during a conversation at a cocktail party. You’ve been warned.
The film begins with a young woman, Zhou Yu, riding on a train to rural Chongyang for her biweekly visits to her lover, Chen Ching. He has written a series of poems inspired by her, which led to a passionate relationship between them. On this particular trip, Zhou is bringing Chen a ceramic vase that she has made for him. She and the vase catch the eye of veterinarian, Dr. Zhang Jiang. He wants to buy, but she refuses. He doesn’t accept her answer, so he continues to pester her. To put the matter to rest, she hurls the vase onto the train’s floor, shattering it.
We then see different episodes of Zhou’s relationship with Chen, contrasted with scenes of Zhou and Zhang. She continues going to see Chen, but their relationship becomes very one-sided. Zhang falls for Zhou, yet he is willing to settle for her friendship in hopes that it will become something more. These scenes are very interesting to watch because we never know at what point in the relationship the participants are in until the scene is over.
I really enjoyed Zhou Yu’s Train as I watched it. The film is well crafted in almost all areas of production but the crux of my review rests on the story. The characters have a wide and believable range of emotions and actions based on the events they are involved in. It’s an intriguing love triangle presented in non-linear fragments. To assist the viewer in understanding the chronology of events, the actress Gong Li has short hair at the end of the story.
So you would think I would recommend it, right? As the credits rolled, I thought I was going to, but let me set up my problem. On the way out of the screening at Sony Studios, Joe and I start to discuss the film. He mentions the two women in the story. I chuckle to myself because there weren’t two women; Gong Li had different hairstyles. It was obvious to me from her face. Wanting to be sure, I checked the cast listing in the press notes and found that Miss Li is the only actress credited. I also stopped a couple of women who attended the screening with us and they said that it was only Gong Li in the film. I’m a film scholar, a professional critic and have been avid viewer of movies for longer than he’s been alive, so it’s not surprising that I pick up on things more than he does.
My triumph was short-lived because as we drove home, Joe started to read the press notes and found out that Gong Li played two different characters, Zhou Yu and this other woman, Xiu, who had fallen in love with Chen through his poems about Zhou Yu. My brain started to go haywire because the film I liked was not the film presented. By the way, Joe thought Zhou Yu’s Train was a good film that kept his interest. He saw Xiu piecing together the love affair from the poems, just like the audience. Once she changes from observer to participant, when her involvement with Chen is revealed, the film lost a little something for him.
I admit that I didn’t get what the director was striving for, but since other aspects of the film are constructed so well, I don’t know if I’m to blame or the filmmaker. I obviously missed something, but I couldn’t understand the director’s reasoning for having Ms. Li play two roles. What would be the significance? Were they the same woman? The press notes say it was originally supposed to be two different actresses, but the director wanted to draw parallels between the women. I do think his choice of using Gong Li for both roles is a mistake. The women are already connected to each other through Chen’s poems.
I am willing to give the film another try before rendering a final verdict, and I think that any artist would consider it a success having someone return to his work. There are plenty of things that I have revisited and appreciated upon later samplings. It was a few listens before I realized that Lola was a man and Ray Davies came right out and said she/he was. If you enjoy films that allow you to figure out what the stories mean, then you should book a fare on Zhou Yu’s Train, but I can’t guarantee where you’ll end up.