From the Archives: Night Train (2007)

20 Feb

Yinan Diao’s follow-up to his 2003 directorial debut Uniform is an intricate tale of court bailiff Wu Hongyan’s (a haunting Dan Liu) lonely existence that exposes the fragility of the human condition when confronted with overwhelming feelings of isolation, desperation and crucially guilt. Diao’s chillingly heartfelt contemplation on the inherent human desire for companionship, set in the bleak industrial wasteland of western China, is an atmospheric and sometimes pessimistic affair, but is one that provides a fascinating insight into the realities of justice, modernization and love in 21st century China.

Diao’s Night Train may be a slow burner, but it is an intriguing and captivating journey into Wu’s desperate existence. Her position as a court bailiff sees her exposed to an authoritarian system dealing in strict discipline and that sometimes requires Wu to act as the literal executioner of ruthless justice. Seeking to put an end to her overwhelming loneliness, Wu resorts to visiting dating agency matchmaking dances in a nearby town, an experience that initially at least seems promising but one that soon takes a darker turn. Subsequently, Wu meets a man who she expresses an interest in (despite their first date being at a building site), only for it to transpire that the agency is a scam.

Salvation appears in the form of shadowy stranger Li Jun (an understated Dao Qi), who inspires excitement and sexual desire in Wu for the first time, but who also conceals a shattering secret that manifests itself in hostility to which Wu willingly submits to. As a result, their emotionally charged affair bristles with friction and the tension is only heightened when Wu uncovers Li’s terrifying intentions.

Night Train’s minimalist script fails to hinder the story, and when coupled with Dao’s measured direction, actually adds to the overriding sense of despair and loneliness. Diao beautifully frames many scenes as if they were photographs and his sparse use of colour (particularly in Wu’s apartment, which is all cold blues and blacks) is particularly effective in conveying Wu’s isolation. In addition, long, lingering shots of seemingly banal objects (shoes, the floor of a bus) sit side by side with vast, deserted vistas of industrial China, serving to emphasize the weariness of seclusion regardless of the grandeur of one’s surroundings. Given that Night Train was produced outside the jurisdiction of China’s Film Bureau, the result is a brutally honest, sometimes visceral portrayal of the nature of solitude and its unpredictable effects on human behaviour.


(originally featured at on 05/11/07)


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