Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

The vast colliery of Jalainur is an unfathomably large hole in the ground, a black crater in the surface of the world. The wasteland is criss-crossed by railway tracks, long trains bearing loads of coal to feed industrial China's ravening powerplants. These are steam trains, however, some of the last still in service, mechanical dinosaurs labouring unseen to support the modern era.

One of those trains is driven by Master Zhu who, wearied from decades of toil, is shortly to retire. He decides, without clear reason, to do so a month early. Zhi-Zhong Li is excellent in the role, his stillness recalling the work of Takeshi Miike in its solidity, the Dean-like intensity of simply being there, doing the things that he is doing. Sipping beer, standing mute at the controls of his locomotive, half understood telephone conversations with his daughter.

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His assistant, banksman-cum-signaller, and protege of sorts is Zhizhong, earnest and cheerful. After Zhu's decision to leave, he accompanies him, and the film follows them both.

It's not much of a story. There's almost no dialogue either, but it's beautiful, stately even, and in its painterly depths hides meaning, or at least the opportunity for interpretation. There are stunning shots here, gorgeous compositions of steam and shadow, silhouetted sequences that might be dream or memory, a sunlit game of basketball in the incomprehensible vastness of the steppe. Trains hurtle across the horizon, objects in the foreground also in focus. A scene that tracks a sheet of transparent plastic as it blows across the ground sounds like the kind of Iranian film-making that is part of some unspoken war fought with ostensibly cultural tedium, but it's hypnotic rather than soporific.

The word that keeps coming to mind is 'scale'. The colliery is huge, the drama small. We see a performance of a touring comic opera company, and, well, their ambitions are significant. We see trains from the inside and the outside, see men chase a pig, ride bicycles. Without subtitles it's hard to know what they are singing about in the karaoke sequence, but the feelings come through. Some things are universal.

Other things, of course, are not. This is a uniquely Chinese film. The contrast between these cast-iron behemoths, hissing rail-bound dragons and the cheerful chirrup of mobile telephones is striking. The black industrial landscape of the colliery, punctuated by the tiny figures of hundreds, if not thousands of workers; the emptiness of a northern highway, silence punctuated by the doppler roar of heavy goods vehicles. A cake packet rustling in the wind.

The landscapes are stunning. Compositions that at first feel odd provide insights as the camera stares. Steam, smoke, clouds, fields of focus that serve to distance as much as they enlighten, scenes dominated by a single colour or mood. It is at times as if one is watching a gallery of photographs that happen to be moving.

Composer Lin Zhaoyang's theme is fit, but it is the visual that dominates this film; that which is seen is beautiful, that which is unseen intriguing, there is depth enough that one implies the other. Like The Fall, its visual complexity is such that it belongs on the big screen; this is cinema, if you will, rather than film. At times the spaces depicted become almost an abstraction, slices of movement in the light vastness, skies and steppes, horizons so wide they oppress.

Director (and writer) Zhao Ye has produced a stunning work. It is slow, there is no doubt, elegiac even, and because of this it will not be to all tastes. For those who enjoy contemplative cinema, however, it is a triumph.

Reviewed on: 08 Jul 2009
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An ageing train driver decides to visit his family and ends up on a road trip through China with his young apprentice.
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Director: Ye Zhao

Writer: Ye Zhao

Starring: Yuan-Sheng Liu, Zhi-Zhong Li

Year: 2008

Runtime: 92 minutes

Country: China


EIFF 2009

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