Director Sun Zhou's second film with Gong, after 2000's "Breaking the Silence," seems a conscious throwback to the earlier efforts of Fifth Generation directors like Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige in which Gong established herself as a screen thespian of global repute. But the film also consciously eschews traditional Chinese cinematic concerns, namely the penchant for socio-political commentary--however restrained--common to both the Fifth Generation and the more temperate filmmakers who succeeded them. In this regard, "Zhou Yu's Train" feels decidedly European, preferring to focus on the emotional entanglements of Zhou Yu (Gong Li), a humble porcelain painter, and the two men who fall into her life.
It is the titular train that fosters both relationships, the first with a teacher/poet named Chen Ching (Tony Leung Ka-fai of "The Lover") to whom she commutes twice a week for liaisons, and the second with a local veterinarian named Zhang Jiang (Sun Hong Lei) whom she meets one day while in transit. The way the film plays out, however, isn't nearly so linear--Gong also shows up as a second female character, Xiu, whose placement in the film and parallel relationship to Chen will certainly risk confusing even those who are paying close attention.
In the broader picture, however, none of these details matter all that much. "Zhou Yu's Train" works best as a kind of existential mood piece--those who are able to let it simply wash over them and walk away with more emotional impressions than narrative understanding are most likely to appreciate it for what it is: a stirring portrait of a modern Chinese woman grappling with her heart, her head and her fragile sense of self. Starring Gong Li, Tony Leung Ka-fai and Sun Hong Lei. Directed by Sun Zhou. Written by Sun Zhou, Bai Cun and Zhang Mei. Produced by Huang Jian Xian, Sun Zhou, Sun Mian and Tang Yat Ming. A Sony Pictures Classics release. Romance. Mandarin-language; subtitled. Rated PG-13 for sexuality. Running time: 92 min