Monthly Archives: August 2008

Shane Meadows and Eurostar

The restored 19th century train shed at St Pancras International, as used by Eurostar.

The restored 19th century train shed at St Pancras International, as used by Eurostar.

The release of the new Shane Meadows film Somers Town in the UK has been accompanied by an unusual amount of soul-searching and questioning re the role of investment by Eurostar. This was evident in the (very positive) review on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row last night and formed the basis of Xan Brooks’ argument in a Guardian article this morning. These are just the latest two examples – I’ve seen earlier references and I’m sure that the argument will be mentioned in several reviews on Friday. I haven’t seen the film yet but I’ve gambled on it being a useful educational resource and I’ve booked it for events this Autumn.

Background

Somers Town began as a short film that was intended to act as a form of promo for the movement of Eurostar’s service from London’s Waterloo station to St Pancras. (See Rona’s post from the Edinburgh Film Festival screening for more on this background.) ‘Somers Town’ is the area of London situated between the railway terminii of Euston to the West and St Pancras and Kings Cross to the East – an historic location which once housed railway goods yards, hospitals and social housing. The new development (an extended station area and the restoration of the historic St Pancras station and hotel as well as the new high-speed rail link to Europe) impinges on the lives of the locals in two ways. First it has brought increased employment opportunities (and prompted the arrival of migrant workers) and second it has brought a further element of regeneration and ‘gentrification’ to the area with new services allied to the upmarket shops in the newly expanded station (following the building of the British Library and parts of University College (UCL) in Somers Town itself). Here are two potential social issues that could contribute to narratives set in the area. This is one of the parts of London that sees a juxtaposition between working class housing and Central London commercial and entertainment activities and the local community which was once very settled and close-knit is presumably seeing changes. The whole wider area of St Pancras south towards Bloomsbury and Grays Inn is to some extent unique in London and has not often appeared on screen. The most famous images of Kings Cross are probably those of the railway bridge in The Ladykillers (1955) and the skylines of Mike Leigh’s High Hopes (1988).

When Meadows began to shoot Somers Town (according to Brooks) he quickly found that he had far more material than could be contained in a 9 minute short. (He first refused the commission, then got interested again when he saw the script produced by his frequent collaborator Paul Fraser.) Eventually, he expanded the narrative to a 70 minute feature (just long enough to count as a feature in UK exhibition). The film was first seen at Berlin earlier this year and then won the major prize for a British film at Edinburgh Film Festival in June. The budget of the film is reputed to have been about £500,000, initially from Eurostar with additional funding later, including support from UK Film Council. It is now being released by Optimum.

Debate

The ‘controversy’ seems to be about whether this is a Eurostar ‘branding exercise’ and whether Meadows has ‘sold out’. Should we see this as akin to the massive product placement deals in Hollywood, is it the thin end of the wedge that will drive through UK independent filmmaking? It all seems a little silly to me, but it does help to expose the whole fraught process of how small films need promotion. Meadows, in one of the many interviews he’s given (see www.shanemeadows.co.uk/ for links), reflects that throughout the shoot, Eurostar didn’t interfere in any way apart from helping the producer with locations permissions. However, since the film’s completion, “. . . they have been brilliant at supporting it without ever trying to make into something that it isn’t” (Meadows on LastBroadcast.com).

Given the generally positive reviews and eager anticipation (it’s great to see the enthusiasm for Meadows’ work), Eurostar would be mad not to support its release, but as the coverage shows they need to do it sensitively. It’s a silly debate, however, because all films depend on financial backing which has strings attached and potential constraints for innovative filmmakers. ‘Artistic independence’ is mostly a myth and I’m sure that, for Shane Meadows, this was just a shoot like most others.

Xan Brooks does make a number of useful points in passing, I think. He mentions the legacy of filmmaking commissioned by the British Transport Commission and other public bodies in the 1950s and 1960s, including many fine documentary films about the railways such as the John Schlesinger film Terminus (1961). He also suggests that the film encourages ideas about travel to Europe and Meadows himself has said he has become more interested in what is happening in eastern Europe after his experiences directing Polish characters. There is a general argument about product placement and the ‘non-accountability’ of sponsored filmmaking (Brooks points out that sponsorship of cinema films is not subject to the Ofcom/ASA controls that face TV and print advertising), but it shouldn’t obscure debates about the funding of independent filmmaking generally.

I’ll blog what I think of the film when I see it, but as a railway fan knocked out by the restoration of St Pancras station and an advocate of Eurostar as the green way to travel across Europe, I’m already in the camp. The only sadness for me is that Eurostar is not publicly-owned or that Shane Meadows could not be commissioned from public funds by a London community arts grant.

Buddha Who Collapsed Out of Shame (Iran 2007)

Abbas and Baktey

Abbas and Baktay

Has the mainstream finally lost interest in the wonderful world of the Makhmalbaf Film House? The latest offering by the Makhmalbafs is Buddha Who Collapsed Out of Shame, directed by 19 year-old Hana, produced by her older brother and written by her stepmother Marziyeh. When I checked on IMDB after a local screening, I was shocked to find only a handful of reviews and the normally authoratative Variety review was frankly pretty shoddy.

The simple story follows six year-old Baktay as she tries to find a school which will teach her the funny story that her next door neighbour Abbas has in his schoolbook. The quest takes all day in the small Afghani community of Bamian, housed in and around the cliffs where the Taliban shocked the world by blowing up a giant carving of Buddha.

Baktay faces all kinds of obstacles in her quest, not least the struggle to find 20 rupees to buy a schoolbook, pencil and rubber (eraser). The overall aim is to present the story as a metaphor for the struggle against the legacy of the Taliban – or rather the history of struggle against the Russians, the Taliban and now the Americans. In one sense, this is a typical Makhmalbaf production with a neorealist approach based on finding non-actors who can act out a simple story. Marziyeh Meshkini provides a script with several surrealist touches, but Hana makes it distinctive with her camerawork. As far as I could make out, the footage was shot on relatively low resolution DV and printed to 35mm film – so it looks rather ‘soft’ and sometimes a little pixellated. The most distinctive feature is the consistent use of big close-ups, especially of Baktay. I was surprised at how well the child was able to hold my attention and I became engaged in her quest, almost despite myself. At one point I could hardly watch her progress as she clutches four eggs in her tiny hands, offering them for sale at 5 rupees each. I was so fearful that she would drop them or that they would be stolen.

The strength of the simple story is that the audience is given time and space to decide what is important. Clearly, most will recognise the critique of the Taliban etc., but the film is not didactic. There is a discourse about what children learn from seeing violence for real (as Hana argues on www.makhmalbaf.com) but also a suggestion that children need to play and to explore the world around them. You can probably discern that Hana doesn’t think too much of teachers in a formal school system (she herself has mostly been educated at home). Baktay is likely to have learned more from her experiences than from the rote learning offered by the teacher. Interestingly, the most helpful to Baktay are Abbas – remarkably calm in the face of provocation – and the old man who promises to buy bread from her and does so.

I was most intrigued by two aspects of the film. The surrealist touches I assume came from Marziyeh and this film would make an interesting double bill with Marziyeh’s film The Day I Became a Woman (both are under 80 mins). I enjoyed the empty chairs and blackboard in the deserted field that served as a classroom and the wooden ducks in the river. I’ve no idea what they meant, but the images were striking. I also enjoyed the ‘violent’ kite seemingly attacking the community. And on an ethnographic note, I was intrigued by the range of facial features and hair colours amongst the children. One boy was seemingly of Russian parentage, several seemed to be from Central Asia and there were plenty of freckles and red-blonde fringes (emphasised by lipstick on young faces – and nail polish!). This presumably happy coincidence in the choice of non-actors worked well in Hana’s overall strategy.

I see no reason to abandon the Makhmalbafs – I’m sure they will keep astounding us for some time to come.

Kannathil Muthamittal (India 2002)

Keerthana and Simran as adopted daughter and her legal mother

Keerthana and Simran as adopted daughter and her legal mother

The summer is a chance to watch some of my archive of videotapes and transfer those worth using to DVD. Kannathil Muthamittal (A Peck on the Cheek) is one of two films made back in Tamil Nadu by Mani Ratnam after his Hindi experience with Dil Se. The other was Alai Payuthey (2000), one of my favourite films that I have watched several times. Although my experience of Mani Ratnam’s work is limited, I’m reasonably confident in asserting that his films shot in the South are better than those made elsewhere in India. When I watch the Tamil films, I really do wonder why anyone bothers to watch the majority of Bollywood films. The cliché is that Bollywood represents a fantasy India constructed just for the vicarious entertainment of the cinema audience. By contrast, Mani Ratnam’s Tamil films deal with real social issues set in ‘real’ environments. I use the scare quotes to emphasise that Ratnam’s world is not a simple reflection of reality (which we all know is impossible on film) but that his construction of reality does draw on the experiences of families living in a recognisable world.

Kannathil Muthamittal tells the story of a child born in a refugee camp for Sri Lankan Tamils in India and subsequently adopted by an engineer/writer who marries the girl next door in order to qualify as an adoptive father. The couple then decide to tell the child about the adoption on her ninth birthday. Mani Ratnam reportedly based the story on the experience of American parents taking their adopted daughter back to the Philippines to meet her mother. The trip from Chennai to Northern Sri Lanka is much shorter, but much more dangerous. The combination of an emotional struggle within a family and an attempted reunion literally in the midst of guerilla war is potentially overwhelming. But Mani Ratnam knows how to handle it, as he had already demonstrated with Bombay (1995), set amidst communal violence.

How does he do it? First, it is important to recognise that he has a conventional popular narrative approach. The adoptive couple are middle class with the resources to do things. Father is a production line engineer who conveniently has plenty of spare time to write short stories (using his wife’s name, ‘Indira’, as a pseudonym). But his wife is no stay at home housewife. She is a morning newscaster on a Chennai TV station. So far, so glamorous and the father is played by Madhavan, Mani Ratnam’s discovery from TV who has become both a Tamil and Hindi star. Madhavan is a likable presence and I think he plays the role well. Mother is played by Simran, who I haven’t seen before, but who I thought very impressive. The trick is to have this middle class couple played by attractive stars, but to create a mise en scène which doesn’t turn them into fantasy creatures. They have children who wet the bed and squabble, a grandfather and in-laws who behave normally and they live in a recognisable community. In many ways, Ratnam achieves what the best Hollywood directors often managed in the studio period – the creation of heroic characters who were in one sense ‘just like us’ and in another ‘able to do impossible things’.

But for this story to work, the child actor playing the child Amudha has to be perfect and Keerthana is. In the brief intro to the film as screened on Channel 4, Mani Ratnam described how he looked at many girls but chose Keerthana even though she had no experience (but her parents did). She then quite naturally became a high profile character on the shoot. Her performance is extraordinary. I’m sure some of it must come from sensitive direction, but the institutional apparatus of casting and preparing children for auditions must be important too. I strongly believe that this is something Hollywood could learn from the approach here, in Japan and often in the UK (at least for social realist films). Most of the time, I can’t bear to watch Hollywood children, who seem like tiny aliens. Keerthana as Amudha is sparky, sulky, excited, intelligent, vulnerable and assertive – a real, live girl with believable behaviour and emotions.

My main prompt to watch the film was the appearance of Nandita Das (who strikes me as a younger version of Shabana Azmi). She plays the birth mother, Shyama, in the prologue and again in the closing sequence – and she’s very good. Both Das and Simran are from outside Tamil Nadu. I mention this partly because Mani Ratnam’s script includes at least three references to skin tones. Indian film stars are generally light-skinned. Darker skin is a marker of both lower social class and also ethnic difference so that Southern Dravidians are generally darker. The subtitles inform us that Shyama means ‘black’, yet Nandita Das is noticeably ligher skinned than the other women. Back in Tamil Nadu the adoptive father’s sister wonders why he is adopting a ‘black baby’. The other use of language that I found intriguing was in the references to Chennai/Madras. At home everyone refers to Madras, but in Sri Lanka, father says that they have come from Chennai. I’m not sure what to make of this. Is it exactly the same as the decision to use Mumbai/Bombay or Kolkata/Calcutta?

The other reason why the film works so well is the combination of A. R. Rahman’s music and Ravi K. Chandran’s cinematography. I thought Rahman’s music for Guru was disappointing, but here he is on top form. The cinematography is just wonderful. It helps to have locations as stunning as those in Tamil Nadu, but I particularly liked the shot selection and especially the use of long shots. Although a different cinematographer was on Alai Payuthey, I thought the overall use of sound and image was similar.

Kannathil Muthamittal is available on DVD in the UK from Ayngaran.

Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles (China/Hong Kong/Japan 2005)

Mr Takata and translator Jasmine.

Mr Takata and translator Jasmine.

Back to the DVD bargain bin again for another Chinese film not released theatrically in the UK. This time it’s Zhang Yimou’s 2005 film made between House of Flying Daggers and The Curse of the Golden Flower. Ironically, I watched this low-key film just a few days before Zhang Yimou stunned an enormous TV audience with his Olympic Games opening ceremony.

My take on Zhang Yimou is that he has proved to be adept at three different kinds of directorial activity: the expressionist melodrama (e.g. the ‘Red’ trilogy, including Raise the Red Lantern, the action spectacular and the neo-realist drama. Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles falls into the third category. The film is built around the weighty star persona of the Japanese star Takakura Ken, often referred to as the ‘Clint Eastwood’ of Japanese Cinema. All the Chinese characters in the film are played by non-professional actors, as in Zhang’s earlier Not One Less (1999). Takakura Ken plays Mr. Takata, a Japanese man in his seventies living quietly in a fishing village and long estranged from his only son, Kenichi. When the son is hospitalised in Tokyo, his wife contacts the old man, who learns that his son’s wish is to return to China to film a folk opera ‘Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles’ in the Western Chinese village where he has spent several years of research. The father, realising that the son is seriously ill and that he wants to do something to bring about a reconciliation, determines to go to China and film the opera himself, despite being unable to speak the language.

The trip is long and complicated and Mr Takata relies heavily on his translator Jasmine. A number of obstacles are thrown up, not least the temporary replacement of Jasmine by a local guide with only rudimentary Japanese. In the final part of the film, Mr Takata builds a relationship with a small boy who is himself the son of a father he hasn’t ever met (the man who is supposed to perform the central role in the opera).

The film runs a number of risks, not least that it will become overly sentimental and that it will lead to a feelgood ending – the kind of resolution often expected of a Hollywood film featuring a revered old actor and a ‘cute’ child. But this isn’t a Hollywood film and though there is an emotional charge to the narrative, Takakura Ken and Zhang Yimou are too highly skilled to mess it up. They both work exceptionally well with the non-professional cast. Perhaps the Eastwood comparison is apt. Takakura Ken does very little, but has enormous presence, matched only by the jaw-droppingly beautiful cinematography in the mountains. The ending of the film is not contrived and audiences prepared to think about the narrative as well as engage with the emotion should find it very rewarding.

The American reviews of the film are mixed. Some recognise its qualities and praise it highly, others find it ‘lightweight’. There are even some attempts to see the film as ‘propaganda’ for Chinese officialdom and the ‘happy lives’ of the village folk. It is of course a matter of taste, but I would argue that the film sits easily in the neo-realist tradition. The story is not contrived, the behaviour of characters makes sense in the situation and we learn something about human relationships – what’s not to like?

From a wider perspective, the film does begin to explore the Sino-Japanese relationship at a time when there has been some tension over the representation of the war of 1937-45. Zhang himself was responsible for the popular film Red Sorghum in which the brutality of the Japanese offensive was portrayed. In Riding Alone, we see the icon of urban Japanese action films taken to the rural Chinese hinterland and the attempts between the two to communicate on a basic human level. Interestingly, rather than film the Japanese scenes himself, Zhang appears to have delegated this task to the veteran Japanese director Furuhata Yasuo (who has worked wih Takakura Ken on big commercial pictures). The Japanese scenes are cool and quiet and visually present a sharp contrast with those in the village/towns of Western China. The two are often linked by phone conversations and this was one aspect of the film that reminded me of earlier comparisons I’ve tried to make between Zhang’s neo-realist films and those of recent Iranian Cinema. There is a scene in Abbas Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us (Iran 1999) in which an engineer from Tehran, visiting a remote village, has to climb a hill to get a mobile signal. In Riding Alone, a group of villagers follows Mr Takata around the village and onto the rooftops in a search for a signal. (In fact, the more I think about it, the more similar the two films become – in the Iranian film, the busy engineer travels to the village where a relative is dying and during his stay learns something about himself through observing village life.) I’m impressed that you can get through to Chinese villages from Tokyo on a mobile phone – there are parts of rural Northern England where getting a signal is very difficult.

The representation of Japanese technologies – phone, still camera, video camera and 4×4 vehicle – are very important in the story, but I was also reminded of recent Chinese films (e.g. the work of Jia Zhang-Ke, such as Unknown Pleasures, 2002) in which community music performances and local use of video technologies is key to the ‘New China’.

Riding Alone was distributed in North America by Sony and promoted as a Zhang Yimou film. I think it would have sold reasonably well in UK cinemas. I’d certainly recommend it.

L’auberge espagnole (Pot Luck, France/Spain 2002)

Xavier (extreme left) and flatmates.

Xavier (extreme left) and flatmates.

Film titles can be important for audiences. When French director Cédric Klapisch showed his film at festivals he is said to have wanted to call it Europudding (see this Guardian interview). This title has a very unfortunate meaning in the UK, where it is a term of abuse (a bit like ‘mid-Atlantic’) implying a film made simply to qualify for various forms of co-production funding and lacking any sense of coherent identity or artistic purpose. That isn’t what Klapisch meant of course and it eventually emerged as Pot Luck, which in English refers to a meal for visitors or travellers produced out of whatever ingredients are available – “I’ll take pot luck”. I’m not sure this is a better title, but at least it does relate to the plot. The French title, explained in the film, refers to the practice in a ‘Spanish inn’ when travellers brought food with them which was cooked in the inn. I missed the film on its cinema release and my memory is that it was still being described in the UK as a ‘europudding’. I’m not sure if this put me off, but since I’d seen (and enjoyed) the two previous comedies by Cédric Klapisch, I suspect not. I was probably just busy. Recently, I rented the DVD, spurred on by the lead role for the excellent Romain Duris and a support role for Cecile de France, so good in Un secret.

I enjoyed the film and I think it would work well with film students – the subject matter is relevant and the film benefits from sparky performances. I suspect that some of the quirky special effects which seem to irritate critics might work with younger audiences. Most of all, it offers a case study in using national stereotypes and transcending them. It’s also an interesting film in terms of American v ‘European’ understanding of the issues. (However, the reviews are mixed.)

The basic narrative idea draws on the Erasmus programme which offers exchange possibilities for European university students. Romain Duris is Xavier, a high-flying Parisian student who joins the programme to gain a postgraduate qualification for entry into the civil service and finds himself on an economics course in Barcelona. He gets to spend his year with a Brit, a Belgian, a Dane, a German, an Italian and a Castilian. The DVD no doubt confuses audiences outside France by promoting Audrey Tautou who plays a minor role as the girlfriend Xavier leaves behind in Paris. When the film was being made, Audrey Tautou had not achieved her high profile via Amélie.

Barcelona has been one of the most attractive cities in Europe for some time and Klapisch makes the most of its possibilities (although I’m surprised that more isn’t made of the waterfront and the Nou Camp). The intelligence in the film for me is highlighted by a subplot which sees Xavier making love to a beautiful young French woman he meets on the plane to Catalonia.

The woman is a newly-wed with an older husband (also French) who is the kind of boring guy that Xavier would usually ignore. However, when his accommodation falls through, Xavier is forced to look up the newly weds and plead for a chance to sleep on their couch. When the husband neglects his young wife because of work commitments, he persuades Xavier (now in a student flat) to take her out sightseeing. We know the young woman is distressed and attracted to Xavier (she had seen him crying on the plane), but when she criticises Barcelona as ‘dirty’, we know that Xavier is justified in upbraiding her. But later, when the couple have got together very successfully, Xavier lets himself down by boasting about his new sexual prowess. I recognised much of Xavier’s behaviour as typical of the awkward process of ‘growing up’ and I think that this is the strength of the film. It deals with national types and familiar instances of language/culture splits (relating the Flemish/Walloon split to that of Catalonia/Castile) in a light and witty way and concludes that all the different students are warm human beings rather than comic ‘cut-outs’. The director’s interests clearly lie with the French and English characters, but I thought that they were presented in the same clear-eyed way as the others.

The IMDB comments are interesting in that there is an obvious awareness about how different this is to a Hollywood ‘fraternity comedy’ with several commentators noting that American films in this genre are usually far less subtle. On the other hand, it is quite strange to see negative comments about the sexual behaviour of the students (including Xavier) – plenty of mileage in discussing societal attitudes here.

Of course, L’auberge espagnole is a ‘popular film’ and comparable to the ‘brat pack’ films from Hollywood in the 1980s. Romain Duris and Cécile de France have since become stars and Kelly Reilly and Judith Godrèche were already established. The film has been enormously successful across Europe, clocking up nearly 5 million admissions across the ‘Europe of 36’ since 2002. Not surprisingly, France saw nearly 3 million admissions. Perhaps surprisingly, the US saw over 600,000 and Quebec 170,000. Spain, Germany and Italy were other big markets, but the UK was pathetic with admissions below Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary and many other European countries. Was the title really a problem or is it a bad case of Europhobia? I’m amazed (and saddened). I hope some UK schoolteachers will take a chance on the film. I’m off to find the sequel, The Russian Dolls from 2005, and I look forward to local screenings of the latest Klapisch, Paris (starring Romain Duris and Juliet Binoche).

Zhou Yu’s Train (China/Hong Kong 2002)

Gong Li as Zhou Yu

Gong Li as Zhou Yu

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.