In a claustrophobic locomotive engine resembling a 19th century museum piece, two train engineers, old Zhu and his apprentice Zhihong, sneak a chicken foot, garlic and beer snack, enveloped in dense, nearly opaque clouds of steam. Zhu, nearing retirement, runs a train hauling coal in a giant state owned open pit mine in the utterly remote border town of Jalainur, Inner Mongolia. The setting is pure collective Chinese socialist enterprise, one of the remaining islands of pre-capitalist industry in the country. Imminent obsolescence hangs over these men and their work, though young Zhihong, riding coal trains like a proud horseman, signal flag in hand, seems blindly dedicated to both his work and Master Zhu. When Zhu retires and heads home to visit his daughter, something in Zhihong forces him relentlessly to pursue his former partner, against the elder man’s will.
Zhao Ye’s camera, capturing spectacular images of steam, snow, and smoke, monumentalizes these men and their work, and at the same time, paradoxically, brings us intimately close to the smells, sounds and textures of their intense bond. Limited dialogue supports a series of visual poems, painted with pure light and sometimes attenuated, sometimes heightened colour, saturated with a surreal, dreamlike intensity. Grandeur, longing, an unwillingness to let go; the co-existence of the past and the present; this intensely personal story resonates at the level of national mythology. —Shelly Kraicer