Watching yet another long Chinese history lesson isn’t exactly my idea of a thrilling night out, but this film actually has a lot to offer as both a human drama and an examination of the changes in China over a turbulent decade. It starts in 1979 with a cultural theatre group performing a pro-Mao drama, then follows them through 10 years as the country changes around them and they are forced to adapt their “message” to a modern, global audience, ending up as a rock ‘n’ roll breakdance band! Along the way we get to know four young members of the group: Minliang (Wang) is nerdy and curious, always feeling left behind by his much cooler pal Chang Jun (Liang). Meanwhile, their semi-girlfriends, the thoughtful Ruijuan (Zhao) and the lively Zhong Pin (Yang), have their own decisions to make.
Writer-director Jia has a marvellous way with the camera, catching the events from unusual angles–often long takes in long-shot, sometimes filming around corners or letting the camera get left behind the “action”. The result is sometimes infuriatingly distant, but mostly mesmerising; it brings the characters to life and examines the communist society from a sideways glance. It’s also fiercely realistic, gritty and relaxed, capturing natural performances from the non-professional cast. Yes, it’s rather impenetrable for Western audiences (there are no clues to how much time is passing), very symbolic (the title refers to what it feels like to wait for a train that may never arrive), and often somewhat self-indulgent (an hour could be cut without changing much). But it’s also fascinating, original, profoundly beautiful filmmaking.