Dir: Jia Zhang-ke. Hong Kong-Japan-France. 2000. 192mins.

Prod co: Hu Tong Communications (HK). Int'l sales: Flach Pyramide International, tel: (33) 1 42 96 02 20. Prods: Li Kit-ming, Shozo Ichiyama. Scr: Jia Zhang-ke. DoP: Yu Lik-wai. Ed: Kong jing-lei. Prod des: Qui Sheng. Music: Joshihiro Hanno. Main cast: Wang Hong-wei, Zhao Tao, Liang Jing-Dong, Yang Tiang-yi, Wang Bo.

How do you make a film that is 192 minutes long and set mostly in a dreary town in provincial Shanxi into an international success' Not very easily. But if anyone can do it, it's Jia Zhang-ke, the 30-year-old whose debut Pickpocket won festival prizes in Asia, Europe and North America.

The new film is clearly too long, but patience is amply rewarded as a group of strolling players find themselves enmeshed in gradually changing times (the mid-1980s) when hagiographic Maoist tracts, watched by loyal peasants, were replaced by livelier stories illustrated by Hong Kong and Taiwanese popular songs.

Platform was a hit rock song of that time about life always being on the road to somewhere. That also applies to the film, the often naive and mostly young characters of which embrace new but still strictly-controlled freedoms. Not all of these characters are very well defined, although the cast acts with a rare naturalness that prevents long takes becoming wearisome.

The triumph of the film, though, is that its relatively inexperienced director manages to paint the scene with depth as well as width, and somehow manages to draw us further into his story than we might otherwise expect. This is the mark of an excellent film-maker - definitely on the road to somewhere. But it is also because he grew up in this town and is speaking from experience. What he is saying is that the movement of history affects everyone, not just those who strut the larger stage.

Eloquent photography from Yu Lik-wai helps and the music of the time is fascinating. There is some stunning work here. It will aid things even more when Jia cuts the half-hour he has promised. Why destroy the arthouse prospects of such a good film by being too long'