Western Trunk Line

Western Trunk Line


Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

Following in the spectral footsteps of James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause and Zbigniew Cybulski in Ashes And Diamonds, Li Jie plays Li Siping, a brooding teenage misfit, in Li Jixian’s haunting love story, Western Trunk Line.

The similarities end there, because the small Northern Chinese town in 1978, where Siping lives with his dominating mother, passive father and bumptious little brother, Square Head, is light years away from California in the Fifties, or Warsaw at the end of the war. The Cultural Revolution is causing havoc throughout the country, but you wouldn’t notice it here, being so far from the capital, from the action, from life beyond going to the factory, coming back from the factory, teasing Square Head, being slapped across the ear, spending time alone mending transistor radios in the hope of connecting with the outside world.

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Siping doesn’t work. He takes the train with Square Head in the morning. He walks towards the factory as Square Head walks to school, but takes a detour to a secret room where he idles away the day, spying on the girls’ washroom through binoculars and fiddling with a transistor. Sometimes he goes out and steals scrap metal, or money from posted letters, and other times he wanders the empty streets. His isolation is self imposed, preferring his own company to back-breaking labour at the factory. The concept of a communal effort in praise of Chairman Mao would be laughable, if he could be bothered to think about it, which he can’t.

The appearance of Yu Xueyan (Shen Jiani) from Beijing is the only positive change Siping observes in connection with this Cultural Disruption. He is fascinated by her, but too shy to introduce himself. She is older, perhaps 20, slim and tall, with a pretty face and a serious demeanor. She carries a musical instrument in a bag over her shoulder and one evening in the recreation hall dances on the stage and he is smitten, although cannot express it, being uncertain of emotion, afraid of how it steals his breath and weakens his resolve.

The look of Western Trunk Line is exceptional, using bleached colour to reflect the ache of winter. Studied long shots of a factory, belching smoke into a grey sky, and the desolate waste ground of land grown tired of ruin have a poetic lyricism that leaches into the body of the film.

There is so much more than the anguish of not knowing about love, the hunger for intimacy and the fear of rejection. There is Square Head’s talent for drawing, being bullied at school, learning to stand proud, be strong; Siping’s determination to break free; his mother’s damaged affection; Xueyan’s father’s illness; the disgrace, the jealousy, the muted passion, the silence after tears and the train.

By respecting the sensitivities and exposing the deprivations of life in the broken distance of Chairman Mao’s nation, Jixian has made a thing of beauty that will benefit from repeated viewings.

Reviewed on: 21 Aug 2007
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In the far distance of Chairman Mao's nation a disruptive teenager discovers love and the Cultural Revolution.

Director: Li Jixian

Writer: Li Jixian, Li Wei

Starring: Li Jie, Shen Jiani, Zhang Deng Feng, Yang Xin

Year: 2007

Runtime: 101 minutes

Country: China/Japan


EIFF 2007

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