Everything in the Chinese puzzle of a romance that is Zhou Yu's Train the jumbled narrative that moves randomly between past, present and future; the penchant for cryptic utterances; the appealing abstractions of cinematography seems devised to distract you from the essential corniness of the story. To an extent, it works. But by the end, all of director/co-writer Sun Zhou's labors have yielded very little.
Zhou Yu (Gong Li) 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 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 yet 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 read 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 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.
Li is as beautiful as ever, and struggles to give her character a little depth. But viewers who want a good romantic wallow will be thwarted by the sliced-and-diced storyline, which prevents any kind of conventional emotional buildup, while those who enjoy mulling over the avant-garde rigors of a disjunctive narrative will find the story hopelessly sappy. Zhou Yu's Train looks good, but there's no denying that there's very little lurking underneath its pretty surface.