"Zhou Yu's Train" gives us the story of a ceramics painter (Gong Li) who lives in a small town in modern China. A couple times a week, she catches a train to another town to hang out with her boyfriend, a poet named Chen Ching (Tony Leung Ka Fai). On her way to meet him one weekend, she runs into a veterinarian, Zhang Jiang (Sun Hong Lei), who's younger, and frankly, more fun. Soon she's catching another train to be with him. So, yes, the translated title of this exasperatingly pokey love drama should actually be "Zhou Yu's Trains." Not that it matters: They both mosey along.
But that doesn't stop the movie's co-writer and director, Sun Zhou, from doting on them. If we get one shot of a train pulling out of a tunnel, we get a thousand. In fact, doting appears to be Sun's big skill. This is one of those languid numbers where slow motion -- and there's lots of it -- is meant to signify poetry, and a line like "I know my lake is artificial, but it's full of water" is supposed to seem lyrical. But all they do is give the picture a fake air of rapture.
Apparently, the director was so psyched to nab megastar Gong Li that he's given her a second role, which you'll just have to see for yourself. Be aware that she often looks bored in both parts. But like France's Emmanuelle Beart, emoting is really beside the point for Gong. For this movie, she looks typically great. Her hair's been teased into an alluring frizz and she wears the same loose-fitting linens and sandals that your favorite art teacher might. The movie's strategy is to show her in action, and by "action" I mean taking long walks, running for the train, panting, hauling trays of bowls, then running for the train some more. (For a change of pace, she does catch the bus once.)
Gong also gets down with her two men, sort of. Even so, there's a stupendous lack of sex. Sun seems determined not to whet our appetites over her indecisiveness and her flings. So the absence of eroticism is not entirely inappropriate for a movie that seems to be about the naughtiness of pleasure. But this might be where Gong can learn a thing or two from Beart, who seems contractually obligated by her nation to fog windows. Instead, Gong is required to sleepwalk her way through the movie's narrative fog.
If "Zhou Yu's Train" won't give us anything satisfying on the physical level, then we at least deserve satisfying drama or satisfying personalities or satisfying train travel. Who knows what these people are thinking or feeling, let alone where they're going. Instead, we get obvious insights ("A lover is a mirror through which you can see yourself more clearly") and insultingly tasteful shots of clasped hands, pensive glances, and parchment flying over the sea. These are not the marks of true cinema; they're the makings of a droopy karaoke video.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.