A well-calibrated tale of young love in a bleak industrial town soon after the Cultural Revolution, “The Western Trunk Line” reps a more substantial (but also more mannered) outing by writer-director Li Jixian after his engaging kidpic “A High Sky Summer” (2002). Light political flavoring, measured direction and good-looking lensing make this a fest-ready item with specialist TV appeal down the line.
It’s 1978, and Li Siping (Li Jie) is a quietly rebellious teen in the gray northern town of Xigandao (film’s Chinese title), where families were transferred during the Cultural Revolution and Maoist slogans still adorn walls. Scolded by his mom (Zhao Haiyan), Siping is largely ignored by his silent dad, an army doctor. His younger brother, “Square Face” (Zhang Dengfeng) — actually born in Xigandao — lives in his own dreamworld.
A loner, Siping often skips work and pilfers material from factories. He secretly tunes into foreign stations on a doctored radio.
One day, 18-year-old Yu Xueyan (Shen Jiani), a musician, arrives in town and stays in a house opposite from Siping’s. Li the rebel finally has a cause: to get to know the pretty, proud Beijinger who isn’t fazed by the locals’ taunts about her aloofness. It’s the start of a long, gradual courtship which ends with the two having sex before Siping goes off on military service.
Longish coda, set a year later, shows the ironic result of their love affair, and how history moves on once its so-called heroes have been established.
There’s nothing especially new here, but what there is, is done with precision and subtlety. While stating hardly anything directly, pic manages to create the weird feel of one of China’s “closed cities” of the era, where everyone has been sent for a reason (usually political) and where lives briefly collide before going their separate ways.
Helmer Li and d.p. Wang Yu go for a well-composed, tableau-style look with fixed camera setups — an approach that isn’t exploited for lengthy takes but one which does become too consciously “authorial,” to the detriment of the characters and human drama. Zhao Li’s warm score is a welcome addition, especially in the central courtship section.
Pic was actually shot in Changzhi, Shanxi province. Dull English title could be made sexier.