Melodrama Derails 'Zhou Yu's Train'

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 27, 2004

IT'S A BIT SURPRISING, for a film about a woman in love with a poet, that there is so little actual poetry -- other than the melodramatic kind -- in "Zhou Yu's Train." Set in China, where a free-spirited ceramics factory worker travels back and forth between her home and the remote city where her lover lives, "Train" is the story of a love triangle, and -- at least initially -- a not particularly stimulating one.

Zhou Yu (Gong Li) loves the commitment-phobic Chen Ching (Tony Leung Ka Fai), a writer who seems perfectly happy with the long-distance arrangement until his girlfriend starts getting funny ideas (how do you say "clingy and smothering" in Chinese?). At that point, he up and moves -- to Tibet. Yet still she pines for him.

Zhang (Sun Honglei), on the other hand, a handsome, level-headed veterinarian Zhou Yu meets on one of her twice-weekly commutes, loves her, unrequitedly so for much of the film. What's more, living in her town, he's at least geographically desirable. "Running from place to place," Zhou Yu says naively at one point, "something's bound to happen."

Don't bet on it.

Oh, stuff happens eventually, but it's the stuff of soggy Western fiction, not sparely lovely Chinese verse. Mostly, we spend the film watching Zhou Yu ride the rails to and from the town of Chongyang, falling into such a deep rut that she continues her trips there even after lover-boy leaves the country. Talk about "Of Human Bondage."

Late in the game, mind you, a couple of little plot twists come along, suggesting not just "The Gift of the Magi" but Luis Bunuel's "That Obscure Object of Desire." The first occurs just as Zhou Yu is ready to get over Chen Ching and give herself to Zhang (who discovers, in a bit of ironic simultaneity, that Zhou Yu can never really be his). The second will likely arrive as something of a head-scratcher and concerns the eleventh-hour identification of a fourth character, also played by the actress Gong Li, and one meant to mess with viewers' heads.

Changing what we think we know about one of the characters at the last minute is a nice bit of cinematic sleight of hand on the part of filmmaker Sun Zhou, whose fragmented, flashback storytelling style can be hard to follow in and of itself.

Unfortunately, the effort required at the end of "Zhou Yu's Train" to sort out exactly what just went down isn't worth the payoff. In the end, it's a story that's less a tale of mysterious, tragic love than a three-way Harlequin romance.

ZHOU YU'S TRAIN (PG-13, 97 minutes) -- Contains scenes of sensuality. In Chinese with subtitles. At Landmark's E Street Cinema.

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