The return to the screen of the ravishing Chinese actress Gong Li, who may have the most expressive face in film, should be cause for rejoicing among her millions of admirers around the world. After starring in a series of memorable and politically controversial films directed by her former paramour, Zhang Yimou -- among them, Raise the Red Lantern, The Story of Qiu Ju and Ju Dou -- and the sumptuous epic Farewell, My Concubine, she took a six-year break from acting to take up her new role as a housewife in Singapore. Now that she's back, we can look forward to more memorable performances by this radiant star.
But not even Gong Li can do much to salvage Zhou Yu's Train, a self-consciously arty meditation on desire, betrayal and the quest for identity that suffers badly in its inevitable comparison to another recent Chinese film, In the Mood for Love. Gong Li is in familiar territory here -- once more, she's a seductive beauty caught up in a devastating romantic quandary -- but director Sun Zhou (Breaking the Silence) doesn't do much with her gifts. This vague, meandering chronicle of a love triangle is stuffed full of dreamy slow-motion shots, tricky jump cuts and atmospheric views of the countryside in northwestern China, but its heroine never quite comes into focus, and Sun Zhou's incessant experiments with scrambled chronology and nonlinear narrative are more distracting than useful. Too often, Train looks like a parody of an art film. Any minute, you half expect the Monty Python troupe to pop into the frame.
Gong Li's title character is a young artisan living in the industrial town of Sanming who, twice a week, takes a train to rural Chonyang to be with her lover, a shy, self-absorbed poet named Chen Ching (Tony Leung Ka-fai, not to be confused with Tony Leung Chiu-wai), who appears to live inside a library. Inspired by Zhou Yu's delicate beauty, he showers her with verse, but neither his overwrought poetry nor their frenzied lovemaking satisfies her restless heart. On one of her train rides -- the film has got lots of them -- the melancholy heroine attracts the notice of a friendly veterinarian, Zhang Jiang (Sun Hong Lei), who says he wants to buy one of her hand-painted vases. She answers the newcomer's persistence by smashing the vase rather than yielding it to him, which might be all right as a character-development tool if it didn't signal the film's imminent deluge of symbolism. As it is, Sun Zhou and his fellow screenwriters (Bei Cun and Zhang Mei) are fatally addicted to poetic signs and portents, and even if the English subtitle-writers have done violence to their dialogue, it's hard to imagine the film's greeting-card inanities coming off any better in the original Chinese. "The blue china is smooth like your skin," the young poet declares to his love. "If it's in your heart, it's real," we are instructed. "If it's not, then it will never be."
Fine, but that doesn't explain why Zhou Yu can't make a choice between the dull poet and the moonstruck vet -- or even why she's attracted to either one of them in the first place. In fact, the entire movie is as short on human motivation as it is long on train commutes. It likely means to be a reflection on yearning, spiced up with a bit of emergent Chinese feminism. But there's more authentic emotion in any one scene from Raise the Red Lantern, in which Gong Li portrayed a tormented concubine of the 1920s, than in the whole length of this gushy ode to doomed love. And as delightful as it is to see Gong Li again, one of her probably would have been enough. Instead, director Zhou introduces a bewildering fourth character, a young woman named Xiu -- also played by Gong Li -- who observes the main action of the film and who may or may not be the title character's alter ego or double. Whoever she is, she, too, has a thing for train rides through the countryside in pursuit of her real feelings, her actual identity and God knows what else. In any event, this Train jumps the tracks long before we can get interested in that particular riddle.