Yangtze River, the largest water system in China, serves as the inspiration and as the multi-faceted location to the newest film by writer-director Yang Chao, who first started working on Crosscurrent (Chang Jiang Tu) 12 years ago, during the 2005 Cannes Film Festival. The journey of this film from the screenplay to its screenings reflects on the film itself since it takes the viewers on a long journey (that seems to take more than just a little under 2 hours) on the mystical Yangtze River, starting from Shanghai and all the way to its highland, snow-clad source.
If we really bring all of the dispersed and often unclear story elements together, the story is as follows: the main character is a young boathand, now a captain of a Yangtze riverboat, Gao Chun (Qin Hao); his father and the previous captain died recently and Gao Chun is still dealing with the loss. He and his two crewmembers leave Shanghai to deliver a cargo to a shady businessman in Yibin. During his journey, he entangles himself with a woman, An Lu (Xin Zhilei), who appears to be more than just an ordinary human being. After they part their ways, he begins to trail what he believes is her journey, based on a hand-written book of poems that he found in the boat’s cabin, going past his originally planned final stop at the Three Gorges Dam and all the way up, to the very source of Yagtze River, in order to find her – and perhaps something else – again.
Yagtze River is, for many intents and purposes, the ultimate protagonist of this film, and also the ultimate metaphor of this film – which is obvious enough to the point of painful. The river also partially manifests itself in the human form – An Lu is supposed to be either a river spirit or, to drift on the Buddhist undertones, a dakini, which in Sanskrit stands for a “sky dancer” – a Tantric priestess who “carried the souls of the dead to the sky”; besides Gao Chun’s father’s passing and his own journey, this is yet another element that pushes forth the “life as a road”, or in this case, “life as a journey upstream” metaphor.
In terms of the narrative, this film is truly quite messy. During the flow of the film, the storyline often gets as intangible as it can possibly get – there are many moments when we feel as lost as the main character himself. It is hard to tell what Crosscurrent really wants to be about – does it serve as a vessel to impart a river-worth of pondering, momentary wisdoms and poetry? Is it an almost pretentious attempt at an arthouse film? It sure is more than half-a-docu, with all of the scenery that we as the audience get too explore when the narrative decides to sink into the waters unknown.
If we are to focus on the cinematography instead, however, it is obvious why the film found so much praise and won as many awards as it did – all the long shots that are used to capture and showcase the natural and the man-made sights along the Yagtze River were orchestrated by none other than Mark Lee Ping-Bing, the celebrated Taiwanese cinematographer/DOP, who – for his contribution to this film – deservedly won the Silver Bear for the Outstanding Artistic Contribution at the 2016 Berlinale. His magic, even with its melancholic overtones, is the one that actually makes the two hours of Crosscurrent bearable, when all of the metaphors and the poetry/poetic dialogues threaten to make a person scream.
Crosscurrent has indeed been described as pretentious, romantic, fantastical, realistic, dreamy and gritty. There are critics who like it and some who found it a complete nuisance. It is a confusing creation, but it might still offer some answers to certain audience members who are already acutely aware that they are in the process of soul-searching. It also introduces, albeit in a romantic way, sights of the world that are not at all commonly displayed, so it might appeal to certain travel enthusiasts. If you decide to watch it for all the beauty that it offers, however, beware: this film is not for those of impatient heart.
Written by Sanja Struna
All photos © Just Show Production Beijing