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Film review: Zhou Yu's Train

Chinese actress Gong Li plays Zhou Yu and also the film's narrator.
Chinese actress Gong Li plays Zhou Yu and also the film's narrator.
Fu Jun and Peng Xiaowei, Sony Pictures Classics

It's been nearly five years since U.S. audiences have seen Chinese actress Gong Li in a movie (the last to reach theaters here was "The Emperor and the Assassin"). So it's nice to see her again. In fact, it's so nice that it's almost tempting to like her latest film, "Zhou Yu's Train," more than it deserves.

But once you get over that initial temptation, this drama reveals itself to be fairly unlikable, or at least uninteresting. And that also goes for its characters. In fact, the whole thing would be pretty painful if not for the presence of Gong, who makes some of it watchable.

It's also a little disappointing that a film attempting to add some insights into the artistic process actually features so little of that. And thanks to the English-language subtitles and the film's structure, the story is also a bit confusing.

Gong plays the title character and also the film's narrator, who is apparently a different character. Zhou Yu is a ceramics artisan who paints vases and who is obsessed with a poet named Chen Ching (Tony Leung Ka Fai). Her obsession has grown to the point that she travels hundreds of miles by train each week to visit him.

However, she's unclear about his feelings for her. At the same time, she's managed to attract another suitor, Zhang Jiang (Sun Honglei), a veterinarian who is making weekly train treks to the rural countryside.

There's more to the story, but thanks to the subtitles and overuse of flashback and voice-over narration, things get a bit muddled.

Not that a more straight-forward storytelling approach would have helped that much. Despite the cast's best efforts, none of the characters are all that interesting. In fact, at times Zhou Yu comes off as being pathetic and fairly cold-hearted (especially in her treatment of Zhang).

Besides the presence of Gong, the one thing the film really has going for it is the look, as cinematographer Wang Yu and his crew do a good job of capturing the gorgeous scenery and settings.

"Zhou Yu's Train" is rated PG-13 for scenes of simulated sex (fairly discreet but intense) and some mild vulgarity (poetic innuendo). Running time: 92 minutes.