Zhou Yu's Train is a movie that will take some patience to appreciate. The Chinese production stars the radiant Gong Li, who just seems to get more beautiful as she ages, and Tony Leung Ka-Fai (the actor from Ashes of Time and A Better Tomorrow III, not to be confused with the other famous Tony Leung from In the Mood for Love and Infernal Affairs). The stars are very appealing and the film has some breathtaking photography, but it also features a convoluted narrative structure that seems designed to mask the relative simplicity of the real story underneath.
Zhou Yu is a pottery artist who every week makes a lengthy commute by train from her village of San Ming in the northwest of China to the metropolitan city of Chongyang. At first we assume that she makes the trip to sell her vases or for other business reasons, but soon learn that she is actually visiting her boyfriend Chen Ching, a poet. During the course of several train rides she repeatedly runs into the charming veterinarian Zhang (Honglei Sun of The Road Home), who is clearly infatuated with her. This puts the woman in a romantic dilemma, forcing her to confront her feelings about whether she is truly in love with her boyfriend the poet, or just loves his poetry. One man represents an intellectual idea of love, while the other a more grounded, physical attraction that is harder to resist. Eventually she wonders whether she continues taking the trip to see Chen Ching at all, or instead to run into Zhang.
This would be, in essence, a relatively straightforward love triangle, and certainly doesn't break much new ground, were it not for the complicated non-linear structure director Sun Zhou employs. The movie constantly jumps back and forth in the timeline, following each character's emotional development rather than a normal chronology. Gong Li also plays two roles, both Zhou Yu and a younger narrator whose purpose in the story is unclear until near the end. Is she a manifestation of Zhou Yu as a young woman (star Gong's appearance is still fresh and youthful enough that she can pull it off), or a separate character observing from the sidelines? This is confusing on first viewing, sometimes needlessly so. It seems to be a simple story made complicated only by the way it is told. On the other hand, isn't that a fair enough description of what poetry is?
Zhou Yu's Train the film is poetic indeed. Even if you can't follow the jumpy narrative, the pacing and mood in concert with the gorgeous photography exert a seductive pull. A few of the visual metaphors are a bit sophomoric (there are way too many shots of trains rushing into and out of tunnels), but many of the images are truly haunting, such as the pages of poetry thrown into the river, drifting in the wind like a dance, or the stunning final shot, which I can only assume was accomplished with digital assistance but still amazes.
All three of the primary leads deliver strong performances, and the movie pays keen attention to emotional nuances. It's lovely to look at, even if it doesn't quite have the substance to back up all of its pretensions.
The movie has beautiful photography, but the DVD has a schizophrenic video transfer that exhibits both the strengths and weaknesses of its releasing studio, Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment. On the one hand, the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen picture (it's actually closer to 1.80:1, and will appear with only the tiniest of letterboxing bars when viewed on a 16:9 display) is bright, sharp, and colorful. Black level is rich and colors pop off the screen, especially the flawless flesh tones. Close-up shots show excellent detail, and at times the image has a terrific sense of three-dimensional depth.
On the other hand, the picture has a ton of artificial edge enhancement which mars many of the most lovely landscape scenes. Wide shots have only a mediocre sense of detail, with ugly electronic halos surrounding the edges of most objects. Film grain also frequently takes on an unpleasantly noisy and "digital" appearance. Some parts of the movie look great, but others are just a mess. The movie deserves better.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio presents the original Mandarin language soundtrack with pleasing musical fidelity. The score has a full-bodied presence, even if it is mostly restricted to the front soundstage. The movie does not have a terribly aggressive surround mix. A few directional effects surface here and there (especially when trains rush into tunnels), but for the most part the film has only a subdued surround ambience.
No other language options are provided (sorry, dub lovers), but the disc does include English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles.
The only bonus feature we get related to the movie is a theatrical trailer, which would be decent enough if not for the horrendous voiceover narration. It sounds like the studio ran out of voice actors and just pulled some random intern into the recording booth.
The disc also has some other previews for unrelated titles, but who cares?
No ROM supplements have been included either.
Zhou Yu's Train may not be the best film to come out of China in recent years, but it has enough qualities to recommend at least one viewing for foreign and art film lovers with patience to follow the deliberately complicated story structure. I find that it does play better with a second viewing, once you've gotten the gist of the story ahead of time and can concentrate on the details. The DVD is a mixed bag with a good-and-bad video transfer, just average sound mix, and no supplements of any worth. I can't recommend a purchase, but a rental will do.