"Zhou Yu's Train" is about a man trying to save the woman he loves from a fate worse than death: poetry.

Oh, those damn poets! They're like drummers in a rock band: All the pretty girls just flock to them, and the rest of us can't get no satisfaction.

In this particular version of that sad reality, set in contemporary China, Zhou Yu (the incandescent Gong Li) has fallen for Chen Ching (handsome Tony Leung Ka Fai) on the strength of his dreamy verses that evoke the delicacy of romantic love. She makes the trip to his city and tracks him down at a reading. Having already glimpsed her, he has fallen in love with her, as what man jack among us would not? The problem is that they live quite a ways apart and thus, once the relationship is up and running, Zhou Yu takes a train to his city twice a week for a session of soul transference known as s_x.

God, I hate poets. Stuff like this happens to them all the time!

Will he marry her? Actually, no, he's a shy librarian by profession, with no income to support her, while she's a talented ceramics painter with what appears to be a good job. Is this a healthy relationship? Actually, no, because it has no future and he's so passive he's unwilling to make any changes to accommodate her. But oh, can the guy sling adjectives!

Then, on the train one day, a brusque fellow accidentally bumps into her bag, cracking one of the vases she's carrying to the poet. When he makes eye contact with her, he's lost. Since he's a veterinarian by trade, it's fair to observe: Doctor, Doctor, here's the news / you have a bad case of loving Yu.

So that's the movie: the headstrong young woman, the dreamy poet and the funny, earthy, earnest vet trying to woo her by using the oldest trick in the book -- you know, the one where he pretends to be a "friend" or an "adviser" instead of a love rival. It never works, but we keep trying it.

Director Sun Zhou's movie, after the modernist fashion, is somewhat unstuck in time. It doesn't hew to chronology but wanders hither and thither over the triple arc of the characters' interpenetrated lives. It may settle briefly on the beginning of the affair, where at a dance Chen Ching first saw her, penned a poem in her honor, gave it to her and walked off into the night. Criminy, anyone can get a girl that way! Or it may scoot forward to the moment when she shows up with all her ceramics to sell to finance a reading of his work, hoping that this will advance his career.

To make matters more maddeningly opaque, the story is narrated by another woman, named Xiu, who is also in love with the sex dog Chen Ching (damn those poets!). It so happens that Xiu is also played by Gong Li, but as Xiu, Gong goes to a kind of Audrey Hepburn hairstyle, though maybe a bit more pouffed than La Hepburn wore. You will understand immediately that Xiu is not Yu, but you may be tempted to believe -- as I was -- that Xiu was an older but wiser Yu, reminiscing about her past. So let me provide a cheat sheet: No. Xiu and Yu, though both played by Gong, are different, unrelated, in different time sequences, as the movie's ending makes clear.

It's a terrific film because each of the characters is so fiercely felt. Gong, who gained fame in the great Zhang Yimou films "Raise the Red Lantern" and "The Story of Ju-Do," as well as Chen Kaige's "Farewell, My Concubine," has never seemed so vivid and adorable. Leung is suitably dreamy and vague. But the real surprise is Sun Honglei as Dr. Zhang Jiang, who fights the good fight. You have to love this guy. He knows he's way overmatched -- he wouldn't know an image from a simile! -- but he's so crushed by love, he doesn't care. Decency and humor radiate from his bright eyes and from his tender way with the animals, and in the friends he attracts. It's so frustrating to watch him beat his head against that Kevlar flak jacket known as romantic love, by whose mandates the lovely Yu would travel by bus to be with the recently transferred poet in Tibet, a land that looks like South Dakota without all the big cities. What guy has a chance against that?

Zhou Yu's Train (97 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is rated PG-13 for modest sexuality.

Off-the-meter love: Gong Li falls for a poet (Tony Leung Ka Fai) because of his dreamy verse.