Zhou Yu’s Train

by E. Jeanne Harnois
Friday Aug 27, 2004
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“If it’s in your heart, then it’s real. If not, it will never be.” This bit of fortune cookie wisdom forms the basis of “Zhou Yu’s Train,” a movie set in contemporary Northwest China, where dreams become reality and reality pales in comparison.

Porcelain painter Zhou Yu (played by Gong Li, a popular actress in China) chances upon Chen Ching (Tony Leung Ka Fai), a shy poet, or rather he chances upon her, mysteriously dropping a love poem in her lap at a local dance. They begin a love affair that has Zhou Yu traveling twice a week by train to Chongyang, the remote village where he lives and works, to see him. During one of her trips, she meets Zhang Qiang, an outgoing veterinarian (played by newcomer Sun Honglei). He is intrigued by her, but while they develop a close friendship and a subsequent love affair, her soul clearly belongs to Chen Ching. Chen Ching is content to write her poems and work and live in solitude in a dusty old library, but she eventually wants more. (Funny isn’t it, this typical trajectory of modern romance, desire begets love begets the inclination to change the person initially desired. As if love weren’t already complicated enough.) Zhou Yu forces the reclusive Chen Ching to give poetry readings and tries to get a book of his poems published, even willing to pay for it herself. He doesn’t want to be changed, however, but rather than confront her, he takes advantage of a teaching opportunity in far-off Tibet, leaving without saying goodbye.

But by now, Zhou Yu’s reality has shifted. She continues to take the arduous train trip twice a week even though he is no longer there. The vet discovers her secret, but doesn’t let on, instead he regularly sees her off to the train station, knowing that she won’t give up the poet for him. Zhang Qiang knows that Chen Ching for her is now a voyage to a dusty old library, he is real in her heart and soul; he has become for her the journey to the place where they once loved.

“Zhou Yu’s Train” is a story not just about love, as difficult as that subject alone is to understand, but also about illusion and intrigue (as in finding a person intriguing). The characters all come together in various liaisons, most of the time without ever meeting face to face. They are intrigued by each other, and this desire is far more interesting than the actual love affairs. As the narrator, Xiu, says, we see ourselves reflected in the eyes of our lover. What is it our lover sees? Can it possibly be real, are we that beautiful and worthy of love? What is it about ourselves that inspires that love? Or is it only an illusion?

These questions are what drive Zhou Yu’s obsession. In his first poem to her, Chen Ching compares her to Xan Hu Lake, a lake he describes as abundant and overflowing. She passionately seeks out the river, with Zhang Qiang’s somewhat bemused help. She is disappointed. In a grand gesture, Zhang Qiang creates an abundant, man-made lake, but it isn’t the same thing. (Although she takes his flowers as she walks away…what’s up with that?) She wants the river in Chen Ching’s poem. She wants to be the reflection in her lover’s eyes. But that is an illusion, an illusion she can’t let go of. Instead she traps herself in the grey area between the illusion she desperately wants to be and the reality she doesn’t feel. Zhou Yu takes her journey, no longer to discover truth, but to hide in illusion.

The metaphor of the train is intriguing. The train plays a much larger role in the movie than it did in the original novel upon which the film is based. Director Sun Zhou played up the train as a way to frame the emotional drama in the film. Aside from being a visual, tangible symbol of a journey, train rides offer a chance to reflect as the steady click-click of the rails leads to a lulling daydream fantasy, and the viewer can’t help but be curious about Zhou Yu’s reflections on her long journeys. And setting is everything. (I cannot imagine a movie of this sort taking place on the Acela to New York City, for example. There is nothing romantic about the Acela.)

“Zhou Yu’s Train” is narrated by Xiu (also played by Gong Li), a young woman who has read the book of poetry about Zhou Yu and becomes intrigued by both the poet and his muse. She tracks Chen Ching down and after she wonders out loud if she has seen Zhou Yu riding the train, he explains to her that Zhou Yu is dead. Poets are fleeting and poetry is ephemeral, neither can be pinned down — a lesson lost on Zhou Yu.

There is something beautiful, albeit sad, to this story, and Sun Zhou treads the line between sorrow and pathetic, between illusion and delusion, carefully, lingering into the mist without sinking into melodrama or farce. The cinematography is equally beautiful, and the music is haunting and understated. “Zhou Yu’s Train” gives a picture of modern, rural China — a rare cultural snapshot that alone is reason enough to see the film. But sometimes it seems that Sun Zhou gets a bit carried away with the train metaphor. There are too many cuts to images of trains racing to nowhere. We get it. Ironically all these rushing trains have the undesired effect of slowing down the plot, leaving the viewer feeling like a plaintive child inwardly screaming “When are we going to get there?”

The beginning and the ending also get trapped in style. The choppiness with which we are introduced to the characters and with which we leave them is unnecessarily distracting and confusing. It is easy enough to see what Sun Zhou is trying to accomplish, but, like a magic trick, if you can see it, it doesn’t work. However, once he gets going, he paints his characters with an emotional paint brush that is as fine and complex as Zhou Yu’s porcelain. This artistry allows us to forgive his stylistic blunders. All in all, “Zhou Yu’s Train” is a voyage worth taking.

E. Jeanne Harnois, New York City-based freelance writer, can be reached at


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