A knotty, dreamy paean to romantic longing, Zhou Yu’s Train is at once ravishing and precise. As Zhou Yu, Li Gong, the ageless star of so many of Zhang Yimou’s pictures before he turned to profitable martial arts action, embodies a yearning that is simultaneously timeless and frozen in time, delicate and determined, vibrant and unbearable.
Structured as a tale that is in the process of being told, Zhou Yu’s Train cuts back and forth in time and across locations. At one level, Zhou Yu is a familiar figure, a young woman dreaming her way out of her dreary day job (she’s a painter at a Sanming porcelain factory), yearning for love and commitment from her poet-librarian boyfriend, Chen Qing (Tony Leung Ka Fai), who lives and works in Chongyang. She presses him to submit his poems for publication, encouraging him to move on, to make a career of his writing. He resists, fearful for unknown (or maybe just clichéd) reasons, eventually seeming to reject her altogether, when he takes a teaching position in Tibet.
On another level, Zhou Yu’s desire is turned inside out, as she appears an elusive temptress, adored by a practical-minded veterinarian, Zhang Qiang (Honglei Sun). They meet on the train she rides twice a week to visit Chen Qing; inspired by her impossible beauty and resistance, Zhang Qiang makes it something of a project to win her over. He invites her to his home to eat, introduces her to his friends, creates a sense of identity and community that contrasts with the airless, if seemingly transcendent elsewhere she inhabits with Chen Qing. Zhou Yu wants their relationship to provide so much. And her lover—framed in her increasingly frustrated view, at the edge of the screen, at a distance, sometimes seeming small within a doorframe—cannot match her expectations. The distance between them makes their devotion loom large and also, apparently inevitably, shrink.
In her present, which is also the film’s past, Zhou Yu’s choices seem clearly marked: the uncommitted ephemera embodied by the poet or the visceral connection offered by the earnest animal doctor. Torn, she hopes for the fantasy, as it eludes her and so becomes more enticing; when Zhang Qiang tries to purchase one of her painted bowls, which he correctly surmises she has made with her lover in mind, she throws it to the ground to break it rather than admit to its material existence, its location in a world where it might be so crassly bought or sold.
As Chen Qing continues to resist her plans for a future, Zhou Yu comes to understand her own part in the fantasy-making. “I finally understand that a lover is a mirror in which you see yourself more clearly,” she says. This even as the film provides a kind of literal mirror, in a second woman, also played by Li Gong (in a short, “modern” haircut), who seeks Zhou Yu’s story. As she interviews Zhang Qiang and Chen Qing, they also are transformed into reflective surfaces, means to pursue and—briefly—define Zhou Yu.