1978: Life in a remote Chinese village is hard work and hardship. Li Siping does not care. As soon as possible, he skips school from work in the factory and wanders around or tries to make old radios so that he can receive the messages from the outside world. Of course his mother notices this, and Li Siping gets beaten regularly. Meanwhile, everything is being watched by the passive and silent father (Dr. Li) and Li Siping’s younger brother, who is nicknamed “flathead” (“square face”). The lazy Li Siping seems to get the most satisfaction from lies, theft and deceit: often innocent, but sometimes with unpleasant consequences for himself or his younger brother, for example, who is often plagued at school because of this.
Li Siping’s aimless life seems to make sense again when he meets Yu Xuanyan. She is from Beijing and seems forced to move to the countryside because of her father’s subversive activities. The handsome and graceful Yu Xuanyan seems to be the opposite of Li Siping in everything, but maybe that’s just a fraud. He discovers, of course again in a devious way, that Yu Xuanyan tells her father in her letters that she is in the Art Ensemble of the village, while she just has to work in the factory. When Yu Yuanyan finds out that Li Siping has stolen her letters (with included money) for her father, their two lives inadvertently become linked.
A strange love-hate relationship develops that is not accepted by the other villagers. Li Siping has made himself too impossible to give a different spin to his life, it seems. “Western Trunk Line” is a typical “coming of age” story, as there are so many along the railroad to which the title refers. The impossibility of true love and freedom is central. The story is told in a subtle, but regularly also somewhat sentimental way.
The pace of the movie is quite slow, which makes the movie too boring at times. Strong points are the fact that the “hero”, Li Siping, is actually not such a likable person at all. Above all, he is a “loser” who keeps making the mistake of antagonizing others. Also nice is the supporting role of Li’s younger brother, who seems to be constantly in the corner where the blows fall. He flees the harsh reality by drawing, something that is noticed by Yu Xuanyan, but no one else. It’s the tragic aspects of the three main characters that make “Western Trunk Line” worth watching. The fact that the film is sometimes too monotonous is perhaps mainly illustrative of the life that is depicted in the film.