Dir: Sun Zhou. China. 2003. 96 mins.

Comparisons will inevitably be made between Chinese mainland romance Zhou Yu's Train and Wong-Kar Wai's In The Mood For Love. The photography is stunningly painterly, the narrative has the same suspended, timeless feel and Gong Li changes her skirt almost as often as Maggie Cheung. But in the end, Sun Zhou's feature is to Wong-Kar's contemporary classic what a scenic district train service is to the Orient Express. Good Machine International, which picked up world sales rights to the film while it was still in production in October 2001, may find it hard to sell, despite the ever-radiant presence of Gong Li. At best, this is a sophisticated urban arthouse prospect, with a limited afterlife at the cineaste end of the DVD/video market. In Hong Kong, the film, which played out of competition at Berlin, opened in early February to take $14,666 from two screens.

The second collaboration between director Sun Zhou and actress Gong Li, Zhou Yu's Train plays on the shifting nature of reality to almost draw its audience into misreading the story. Indeed, it is as well as to know from the outset that Gong Li plays two different characters in this baffling romance. Yet what might seem like a basic plot flaw does not limit enjoyment, as through the semantic fog shines an original love story that possesses a fresh, lyrical quality.

Zhou Yu (Gong) decorates pots in the northern Chinese town of Sanming. Her beau, a librarian and aspring poet called Chen Qing (Tony Leung Ka-Fai), lives miles away in the city of Zhongyang. Every weekend, Zhou Yu takes the train to visit her lover, where the two make passionate love in a way which may seem remarkably chaste to jaded Western audiences, but which only passed the Beijing censors on the third attempt.

Gong also plays the character of Xiu, a sophisticated bar owner, who herself develops a crush on Chen Qing. Meanwhile, Zhou Yu is being chatted up by Zhang Jiang, a vet she keeps bumping into on the train; soon she finds herself torn between the two men. At the end, tragedy strikes when one of the women makes a fatal error of judgement.

Wang Yu's lush cinematography and William Chang's stylish editing aid and abet the film's poetry. The train scenes create narrow tunnel-vision spaces that are recreated among the bookstacks of Chen's library. Images of the train racing through the northern Chinese countryside are interleaved with calm, Vermeer-like tableaux of tables, and asthrays, and sunlight filtering through shelves of terracotta pots. There are moments of humour, and Sun Hong Lei's down-to-earth vet, who teases Zhou out of her romantic illusions, is a likeable character.

But in the end the emotions appear as stylised as some of the cinematic brushtrokes. Although director Sun Zhou has a gift for showing Gong Li at her photogenic best (they also worked on 1999's Breaking the Silence), this does not make her character any easier to read; in this, if nothing else, she can almost be regarded as a Chinese Morvern Callar. At one Berlin screening, the audience became visibly excited when Zhou turned to Zhang and said: "What I really want is...". At last, the audience thought, all would be revealed. Unfortunately, she never finished the sentence.

Prod co: Sanjiu Film
HK dist:
Int'l sales:
Good Machine International
Huang Jianxin, Sun Zhou
Sun Zhou, Bei Cun, Zhang Mei, from Bei Cun's novel of the same name
Wang Yu
Prod des:
Sun Li
William Chang
Shigeru Umebayashi
Main cast:
Gong Li, Tony Leung Ka-Fai, Sun Hong Lei, Li Zhixiong