I distinctly remember the shock of seeing Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum when it opened in London (in 1988, I think). I was prepared for the look of the film after Yellow Earth, but not for the emotional and physical violence, nor the impact of Gong Li’s first appearance as a star of Fifth Generation Chinese films. Twenty years on, I was drawn to the DVD bargain bin to watch Gong Li again in Zhou Yu’s Train. I’d seen a trailer for the film on Apple’s website, but it wasn’t released theatrically in the UK and the DVD was eventually released in the UK in 2005. Magnificent in Zhang’s Curse of the Golden Flower and wasted in Michael Mann’s Miami Vice, I was intrigued as to how ‘the most beautiful woman in China’ would look in a contemporary Chinese film.
Gong Li plays the title role of Zhou Yu, an artist in a ceramics factory who travels twice a week by train to be with her boyfriend, the poet Chen Ching (played by the Hong Kong actor, Tony Leung Ka- fai). On one of her train journeys she meets Zhang, a rural vet (played by Sun Honglei from Zhang Yimou’s The Road Home). A fourth character is also played by Gong Li (with short, curled hair) – a woman who is seemingly searching for Chen Ching, perhaps in a different/parallel time period? The film offers this odd triangle with a possible ‘third dimension’, in a non-linear narrative which jumps backwards and forwards in time.
The film seems to have confused and irritated some American audiences (and reviewers), unwilling to look beyond its undeniable beauty – the only sensible and considered comments I found were generally from IMDB’s users and bulletin boards rather than the professional critics. Surprisingly, I found only one reference to the Chinese film which it most resembles – Suzhou River (China/Germany 2000). There is a direct connection in that the same cinematographer, Wang Yu, shot both films. For Suzhou River he created a romantic and timeless vista of the river in Shanghai, but for Zhou Yu’s Train the emphasis is on the train and the landscapes of both rural China and its provincial cities (the named cities are Sanming and Chongyang, although according to Derek Elley in Variety the actual locations were elsewhere). In fact confusions over geography only add to the mystique – Sony’s press pack says the location is North West China, but the named cities are in Central/South Eastern China and some 600 or more miles apart. In Suzhou River, the two central female characters are again played by the same actor, Zhou Xun. However, Suzhou River was judged to be a small, ‘independent’ Sixth Generation film only getting an international release via its European co-funding. It proclaimed its ‘postmodernity’ through a calculated mix of memory and reproduction and a direct nod towards Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
Zhou Yu’s Train is a much bigger budget film from a more prestigious production context. The director had previously worked with Gong Li on Breaking the Silence (2000) and the music is by Umebayashi Shigeru. Although it doesn’t bear comparison with Umebayashi’s great work on In the Mood For Love or for Zhang Yimou (Curse of the Golden Flower), it still adds greatly to the film. There is another Wong Kar-wai connection in the presence of editor William Chang and a further indication of ambition is the presence of producer Bill Kong, another collaborator with Zhang Yimou, as well as Ang Lee. Kong was also a producer on Tian Zhuanzhuang’s remake of Springtime in a Small Town (2002) which was another title that came to mind as I watched Zhou Yu’s Train.
The prestigious nature of the film and its presentation in the West, possibly drew audiences who might not have seen the other films I’ve mentioned here. Perhaps because it seems to offer a straightforward romance, there is less chance that the audience will be prepared to consider it as an ‘art film’? I’m not sure. I enjoyed watching the film but I can see that its non-linearity was perhaps more confusing than in a similar film, like Suzhou River, where the generic clues (film noir etc.) lead us to expect twists and turns and mysteries.
In thematic terms, I took the film to be dealing with some interesting issues. Zhou Yu is clearly a modern woman, unmarried in her thirties and without dependents. She represents a challenge to Zhang and something of a threat to Chen, who takes himself off to Tibet, perhaps afraid of her energy in trying to make a long distance relationship work. The distance that Zhou travels for her twice-weekly trysts is a feature of a society which to a certain extent institutionalised separation/exile from the 1920s onwards. The railway takes on quite a different role from that it has in North American and European contemporary cinema (but perhaps it is shared by Indian cinemas?). The lack of family and ‘tradition’ (and really of ‘authority’ in any form) is quite refreshing, though Zhou is following in her father’s footsteps (he worked on the railway) and the use of poetry in the film does refer back to traditional modes of romance in Chinese fictions.
As well as the remarkable Gong Li herself, there is a great deal of attention paid to landscape and conventional shots of trains. If nothing else, the film does refer to the obvious connections between rail travel and romance. Mostly, the train works as metaphor – its constant toing and froing and the sense of movement between urban and rural life. I was also struck by the use of wide-angle lenses in the indoor scenes and of compositions in long shot for the train and city environments.
But for me, the most pleasure came from Gong Li’s performance. I was taken with the striking difference created between the two characters she played, achieved by changing hairstyle, costume and body movement/gesture. Several commentators admit to being confused about time periods in the film and I think that this might be triggered by Gong Li as the fourth character, who in her denim jacket and short, but styled, hair seems much more ‘modern’ than Zhou. As Zhou, I realise that Gong Li was dressed as I’ve never seen her before – in simple, timeless dresses (rather than the traditional dress of period Zhang Yimou films or the ‘smart’ business dress of Miami Vice. The simple dresses allow her to move more freely and there are several shots/sequences in which the director seems to emphasise this (especially when she is shown running after the train in slow motion). Dress and movement allow her to seem ‘girlish’ (and a mature woman at the same time). In short, she is terrific and well worth pursuing through the bargain bin. I hope she gets more contemporary roles in Chinese Cinema. With her only serious rival, Maggie Cheung, seemingly in retirement, she is sorely needed. Unfortunately, she seems to be mainly employed on American-financed films – I hope the Americans learn how to use her skills and star persona effectively.