"Zhou Yu's Train" is something of a rarity in Chinese cinema, the all-stops-out romantic movie. It stars Gong Li, master director Zhang Yimou's former longtime muse. Since their personal and professional breakup with "Shanghai Triad" (1995), Gong has been largely absent from overseas screens, but she returns here as beautiful and accomplished as ever.
It takes some getting used to seeing her in a film without Zhang's customary wide-ranging social and political commentary, but "Zhou Yu's Train" emerges gradually as a lyrical contemplation of the often ambiguous yet persistent nature of love through an intricate structure that fragments the narrative as it moves back and forth through time.
Gong's Zhou Yu is a gifted porcelain painter who works in a small factory in Sanming, an industrial city in northwestern China. On a visit to the rural town of Chongyang, a lengthy train ride away, she encounters Chen Ching (Tony Leung Ka Fai), a librarian and aspiring poet who is moved to give her a poem before disappearing. She's so deeply affected by the poem she returns to Chongyang, tracks him down and begins a passionate romance that inspires him to write a series of poems he calls "Zhou Yu's Train." So captivated is Zhou that twice a week she makes the long journey to Chongyang to be with the handsome Chen.
Zhou is swept away by Chen's poetry and his love-making, but he's actually quite reticent and uncommitted, and as the film progresses and its plot develops the question arises as to whether or not she has fallen in love with a phantom. That is what Zhang Jiang (Sun Hong Lei), an earthy veterinarian who has met Zhou on one of her train trips and is immediately smitten, comes to believe.
Zhou rebuffs his advances, but he persists and she remains intrigued by this witty and intelligent man. The question then becomes whether it will ever be possible for Zhang to compete with the ethereal Chen.
"Zhou Yu's Train" might well have been as effective — or even more so — had its director, Sun Zhou, proceeded in straightforward fashion. Fortunately, the film is reasonably easy to sort out, and its meaning emerges clearly enough.
Not until the end, however, does it become clear that occasional shots of a contemplative Gong in a short hairstyle do not represent Zhou Yu looking back on the past and that she is in fact playing another character, Xiu, who has been observing Zhou all along and becomes susceptible to the charismatic Chen.
For much of the way, "Zhou Yu's Train" seems at once overwhelmingly romantic and elliptical, yet all the while it has been building to a conclusion that is surprisingly affecting in the jolt of recognition it elicits.
'Zhou Yu's Train'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for sexuality
Times guidelines: Sexuality is discreet and brief, but the film is best suited to adults.
Gong Li...Zhou Yu
Tony Leung Ka Fai...Chen Ching
Zhang Jiang... Sun Hong Lei
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Director Sun Zhou. Producers Huang Jianxin, Sun Zhou, Bill Kong. Executive producers Yang Buting, Zhao Xinxian. Screenplay by Sun Zhou, Bei Cun, Zhang Mei. Cinematographer Wang Yu. Editor William Chang. Music Shigeru Umebayashi. Production designer Su Li. In Mandarin, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes.At selected theaters.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times