The Western Trunk Line

Bottom Line: A plaintive depiction of small town life in 1970s China.

Tokyo International Film Festival

TOKYO -- Li Jixian's "The Western Trunk Line" ("Xi Gan Dao") depicts the bittersweet lives and loves of an ordinary, reserved family in 1970s China. As such it joins a crop of recent Chinese films set in post-Cultural Revolution era that have shifted from decrying mass human suffering to telling personal stories with intimate, yet unsentimental hindsight. Most notable are Gu Changwei's "Peacock" and Wang Shaoshui's "Shanghai Dreams."

This film premiered in Rotterdam early this year and became a festival wallflower until its selection for International Competition at Tokyo International Film Festival, where it won the Special Jury Prize. A Sino-Japanese co-production, it is slated for release in Japan. Elsewhere, it appeals to a tasteful but conservative audience, who can appreciate famous cinematographer Wang Yu's graceful rendition of wintry images.

With tranquil lyricism the film depicts a nondescript northern town, where activities revolve around the train station. A mere link in the chain of the massive railway that runs in Northwest China, the town is not exactly going places. With the political zeal of the 1960s burning out, the prevailing mood is one of listlessness and blank indifference.

Unable to muster an iota of enthusiasm for his menial work at the run down local factory, Siping (Zhang Dengfeng) steals metal parts, more out of bored defiance than for the meager returns. While western youth are rocking to the Rolling Stones, he has to make do with Soviet songs on illegal airwaves. Not that he knows what he's missing, until the arrival of Xueyan (Shen Jiani), a girl from Beijing. She is an envoy of distant utopias of culture and sophistication beyond reach. Her aloofness is the kind that sends the testosterone level of a local boy skyrocketing.

Their relationship, which flies in the face of conservative social propriety, is an elegy to an age of limited options, unquestioning conformity, unrealized potential and broken dreams.

While "Shanghai Dreams" recreates the historically specific experience of urban intellectuals "sent down" to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution, the social background of "The Western Trunk Line" is bordering on vague. The narrative rhythm follows the same lackadaisical gait of the protagonists, and the first half is meandering in its chronicle of the characters' daily lives.

Only the second half gets more absorbing as the couple's behaviour creates wider repercussions in their community. Even then, there is not enough penetration into the characters' psychology or motives. Why, for instance, is Siping's mother so irascible and his father so taciturn? Like the film's many static long shots, they remain distant figures in a landscape painting rather than sharply delineated portraits.

THE WESTERN TRUNK LINE
China Film Group Corp. and Wako Co. Ltd. presents/Warner China Film HG Corp./Gold View Co Ltd.
Credits:
Director: Li Jixian
Writer: Li Wei
Producer: Han Sanping/Hajime Suzuki
Executive producer: Yang Buting, Hisaaki Tai
Director of photography: Wang Yu
Production designer: Quan Rongzhe
Music: Zhao Li
Costume designer: Bai Yuzhen
Editor: Zhou Xinxia
Cast:
Siping: Zhang Dengfeng
Xueyan: Shen Jiani
Fang Tou: Li Jie
Running time -- 101 minutes
No MPAA rating
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