Night Train (2007)

Enigmatically told with stunning picturesque visuals, Diao’s sophomore film about a frigid woman looking for love in a Chinese industrial town sees him channel the spirit of Antonioni. 

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Review #2,530

Dir. Diao Yi’nan
2007 | China | Drama | 95 mins | 1.85:1 | Mandarin
Not rated – likely to be M18 for sexual scene

Cast: Liu Dan, Qi Dao, Xu Wei
Plot: Wu Hongyan is a female bailiff in a regional court in West China dealing with women awaiting execution. Every weekend, without much luck, she looks for love at the Good Luck Matchmaking dance, until she meets the husband of one of her prisoners.
Awards: Nom. for Un Certain Regard Award (Cannes)
International Sales: MK2

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate – Loneliness; Unlikely Connection
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Pace: Slow
Audience Type: General Arthouse

Viewed: MUBI
Spoilers: No

Going back to his early sophomore feature, Night Train, one could already see how astute Diao Yi’nan already was as a filmmaker. 

While he would go on to win the Golden Bear at the Berlinale for the extraordinary Black Coal, Thin Ice (2014) and followed up with the rather underwhelming if technically adept The Wild Goose Lake (2019), Diao’s work here could be the closest any post-2000s Chinese filmmaker had come to channeling the spirit of Antonioni, the Italian master of existentialism-laden films of the ‘60s. 

The setting of Night Train is an industrial town in the throes of development in West China.  We don’t see many people and it is quite a quiet and airy film.  The only time when we see a large crowd is in a community space-turned-dance hall used by a matchmaking agency as tens of older men and women try to find a partner. 

“Too bad I can’t replace her.”

Wu Hongyan is one such person, a woman jaded by the monotony of her job as a court bailiff.  As part of her work, she is sometimes ordered to execute folks on death row with a bullet to the head.  The husband of a woman she had recently executed begins to ‘stalk’ her, with Diao playing up thriller-like tensions in a slow-burn style. 

Liu Dan plays the frigid Hongyan with an icy charm—on one hand, she isn’t exactly unhappy being lonely; on the other hand, she is tempted by the prospect of ceding control of her body, and possibly, her life to a stranger. 

It is a film in which perversity lurks beneath the surface, though Diao is also interested in exploring human connections—the murkier they are, the more fascinating it is.  Together with its stunning picturesque visuals, Night Train is as beautiful as it is sublime an enigmatic experience.   

Grade: A-


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