Zhou Yu's Train

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In this Chinese puzzle of a romance, co-written and directed by Sun Zhou, everything — the jumbled narrative moving randomly among the past, present and future, the dialogue’s penchant for the cryptic utterance, the appealing abstractions of cinematography — seems to be devised to distract you from the essential corniness of the story. And, to an extent, it works. By the end, all of Mr. Zhou’s labors have yielded very little.

Zhou Yu (Gong Li — as beautiful as ever, and struggling to give her character a little depth) takes a train twice a week to visit her lover, the poet Chen Qing. Zhou is an artist herself, a painter of porcelain vases, and she’s attracted to the sensitivity that simmers beneath Chen’s rather sullen exterior. It’s an attraction fueled by the goopy poem he’s written for her, one that gets repeated about a half dozen times during the movie and doesn’t get any better. Even keeping in mind the old saw that “poetry is what’s lost in the translation,” we can tell from the English version we get in subtitles that Chen’s poem is moony and inane.

One day Zhou has a chance encounter on the train with a veterinarian named Zhang Qiang, a man the opposite of her glum self-absorbed poet lover. He’s an open and friendly guy with a healthy sense of humor (you get the impression that if he were to see this film he would probably chuckle at its leaden absurdity). Soon Zhou is torn between the brooding Chen and the relatively carefree Zhang, and we have something resembling a plot.

But it’s a plot that must be assembled from what little shards of information we’re given, an effort that seems less and less worth the bother. The story is told by a woman named Xiu, also played by Gong Li, but with shorter hair, leading you to believe for much of the movie that it’s actually Yu at a later date. By the time the movie gets around to telling you who she is, you’re past caring.

People who want a good romantic wallow will be thwarted by the diced and sliced storyline that prevents any kind of conventional emotional buildup, while those who appreciate mulling over the avant-garde rigors of a disjunctive narrative will find the story hopelessly sappy. There’s no denying that it looks good, just as there’s no denying that there’s very little lurking underneath its pretty surface.

 

In Mandarin with English subtitles. Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (Inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Friday and Saturday, Aug. 27-28, at 7 and 9:30 p.m., and on Sunday, Aug. 29, at 4 and 7 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.

Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com.

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