On Light and Shadow: A Conversation with Crosscurrent Director Yang Chao

For his second feature, director Yang Chao presents a trek that is at once ordinary and extraordinary: a largely solitary journey on a river in a boat. The river in question is the Yangtze River and the person undertaking the journey is Gaochun (Qin Hao), whose father’s recent passing actually prompts the trek in the first place. Full review here.

Beginning in Shanghai and marking an east-to-west trajectory, Gaochun and his ship eventually wind their way inward, ultimately concluding in the Tibetan region. “Inward” is in truth the operative word for the film’s narrative and visual drive. As Yang himself states, what prompted this particular story on the Yangtze River was a desire “to explore the beauty of China’s longest river, through a man’s journey to find his inner secrets,” the pursuit of which is rendered all the more elegiac and reflective in the wake of the death of Gaochun’s father. In this regard, the film has a rather novelistic quality in the way that it details the philosophical mystery, ephemerality, and solitude that a life on a ship entails. Captions denote days and port stops, which are also occasionally prefaced by poetic lines. Moreover, from time to time a voiceover shares traditions and anecdotes related to people who work and live on boats. In fact, the poetic lines are culled from the journal/ship log filled with descriptive musings of previous Yangtze River journeys that Gaochun finds had belonged to his late father.

In this context, the near-ubiquitous and shape-shifting character of An Lu (Xin Zhilei) is notable in paradoxically embodying the nature of life on water (not to mention the various literal and figurative dichotomies that the film presents: land-water, life-death, reality-dream, time-absence of time, etc.). Yang relates, “An Lu is like the river itself, always changing and constantly passing. A western philosopher once said, ‘people cannot step into the same river twice.’ In the story of Crosscurrent, it is also impossible for the man to see the same woman twice because the boat keeps going upstream from the Yangtze River estuary.”

Significantly, Yang actually had cast and crew living together aboard a ship for the entirety of the shoot, which naturally had its pros and cons: “The good side is that you don’t have to relocate from site to site in a car, switch dozens of hotels, pack your luggage a million times, and get your energy used up in the traveling Meanwhile, the whole crew went through Gaochun’s journey of going upstream. Everyone was in this atmosphere and experience. The downside is that it is too expensive, the crew becomes huge and the cost is consumed in fleet rents and fuel, resulting in the shortening of the shooting period.”

But Yang’s decision to shoot in this way falls in line with the fact that “Boats and rivers, the beautiful relationship between men and women, were [also] my focus.” This focus on boats, rivers, and the myriad tales that they can tell, across times and ages, makes his choice to conclude the film with a montage of archival footage of the Yangtze River and the people who have worked, lived, and travelled through it is only logical. “When Gaochun looks back at the Yangtze River from the source,” Yang shares, “his eyes no longer pass through the contemporary Yangtze River that he went through, but the fragments of life of the old Yangtze River in the 1980s.”

Yang’s speaking of the film production and his motivations behind the story admittedly possesses more interest than the resulting film story and characters. However, the film succeeds more on a visual level in registering and drawing out the mystery, ephemerality, and solitude of life on the Yangtze River. Indeed, the film’s beginning provides a stunning master class of photographing light, shadow, and color to generate mood and transform land- and water-scapes into characters unto themselves. Significantly, Crosscurrent was shot in 35mm film instead of digital. Yang explains, “Technically, there were two main reasons. First, we took a large number of pictures of huge light contrast inside and outside the cabin, and 35 mm film shooting makes this transition of light contrast smoother than digital shooting does. Another reason is that there is a lot of water vapor on the Yangtze River, which brings subtle changes to the texture of the air, like the transition from cold to warm, and only film can present such details. I really like how decorous and ritualized 35mm film is.”

And just as significantly, the film’s cinematographer is Mark Lee Ping-bing, who has made it no secret that he prefers working with celluloid instead of digital and whom Yang calls “an old-school poet of light and shadow.”

Crosscurrent is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Cheng Cheng Films.