Crosscurrent (China, 2016)
Yang Chao’s second feature-length work Crosscurrent presents a largely missed — albeit strikingly shot — opportunity. Yes, the film is richly textured in terms of visuals, established in the atmospheric opening long shot. During the magical blue hour, a man is knee-deep in a river, occupying the left side of the frame. When he catches a fish, he walks out of the water and onto land, where a campfire waits for him on the right side of the frame. As a voiceover intones during the shot, there is a tradition of capturing a blackfish after one’s father has passed away, and keeping the blackfish in one’s possession while withholding food until it dies, at which point the father’s soul is said to be set free. In retrospect, the opening shot’s dichotomous nature of the blue of sky and river and the red of fire constitutes the territorial and visual conflict of water and land that unfolds in the course of the film. Unfortunately, the tale of the young man’s journey on the Yangtze river following the death of his father that accompanies such visuals is underdeveloped at best and over-indulgent at worst.
In keeping with the opening shot’s dichotomous nature, the film has a split personality. On the one hand, on a narrative level, it is a story about Gaochun (Qin Hao), whose father has died and who thus inherits the title of captain of the family’s cargo ship that makes deliveries along the Yangtze river. Early in the film, Gaochun finds his father’s notebook, ‘Crosscurrent,’ filled with poetic, existential entries for each stop. Excerpts from the notebook appear onscreen to denote both a mood and the port cities at which the ship stops. In addition, stops are intermittently marked by days (e.g. ’Day 2,’ ‘Day 8,’ ‘Day 98’). Consequently, a recurring image is of the ship at sea, sometimes with others, and sometimes enshrouded in fog, to denote the (lonely) maritime life.
The ship journeys from east to west, beginning in Shanghai, at the mouth of the Yangtze river, and then making its way back towards the heart of China along the river, eventually ending up at Chumar river in the Tibetan region. Along the way, Gaochun and his crew of two, Uncle Xiang (Jiang Hualin) and Wusheng (Wu Lipeng), meet with the director behind the cargo that they are carrying. When the three shipmates’ relationship implodes, in part due to the blackfish, Gaochun is left alone on his ship with the spirit of his father on his shoulders via the notebook and the ambiguous presence of An Lu (Xin Zhilei), a prostitute with whom Gaochun is intimate and who appears at almost every stop incarnating a different persona. Meanwhile, an intermittent voiceover accompanies the journey with traditions/tales about boathands and port city trysts. While all the above may seem interesting on paper, onscreen it is anything but. Yang diffuses such plot points to such a degree that by the time Wusheng provides some context to these details and incidents over an hour into the film, one is at extreme pains to care.
On the other hand, on a visual level, the film is a compelling documentary-like work. Famed Taiwanese cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-bing’s signature gliding camerawork, play with graphic lines that cut an actor’s body into a given setting’s architecture, and ‘lattice’ shots paint the Yangtze river and the port cities dotted along its way in beautiful mystery. Working in his preferred medium of (35mm) film, Lee achieves some of his most gasping imagery through the film’s primary palette of cold blues and warm earth tones (reds, browns, golds, yellows), reinforcing the opening shot’s dichotomous nature and the overall film’s dual personality of fiction and documentary.
The film’s most fascinating sequence lies precisely on this documentary side in dialogue with a thin veneer of fiction. Marked as ‘Day 8,’at Digang, Gaochun enters a pagoda and finds himself among very narrow walkways and walls with uneven surfaces, which give a sumptuousness of character to the image in relation to the actor’s face and body. Lee’s camera tracks through such confined spaces with and without Gaochun, but in doing so, in his distinctively reflective way, he actually opens up the space to a diversity of meanings. Prompting both the camera’s and Gaochun’s movements within the tight spaces of the pagoda is the soundtrack of a conversation between a Buddhist priest and a woman, who asks the former three questions on sin and faith. Is the woman An Lu? Though lasting less than five minutes, the sequence is a stunning piece of filmmaking that develops a specific mood of mystery, longing, and loss — in this regard, it strongly recalls Lee’s work for the Cambodia sequence that concludes Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000). For its sheer visual power, it would work just as well as a standalone short film that could be titled ‘Thus I heard Buddha say.’
When the ship reaches the Three Gorges Dam, two other memorable sequences appear and favour the film’s documentary side more than the fictional one. Spanning two separate days (‘Day 23’ and ‘Day 28’), these two sequences provide visual and verbal views of the dam: first from the ship’s perspective, as it makes its way through the dam and the weight of its (conditions of) construction, and second from a neutral perspective at Yunyang. While Gaochun stands by a window, a tour group passes through the space and overheard is the tourist guide relating information about the dam and how Yunyang was affected by its construction. From the side of documentary and cinematography, the film can be redefined as a ‘ship symphony,’ following the term ‘city symphony.’
Lee’s cinematography is simply and undeniably breathtaking, and it is no wonder that he was the recipient of an award for the film at this year’s Berlin Film Festival and not director Yang. The cinematography is what captures the attention, not the fictional story, if one could even call it that; whatever it is, it leaves the viewer terribly indifferent. The cinematography exists apart from the narrative, removed from the characters, even. While the film through Lee’s cinematography marvels at the world that it sees, the film through Yang’s characters are indifferent to it, too preoccupied with themselves.
In other words, whenever released from the burden of Yang’s disingenuous fictional tale, Crosscurrent is an intriguing film. In fact, the film’s end gives the impression of siding with this view to resolve the film’s dual, or undecided, nature. Yang concludes his film with a montage of archival footage of the Yangtze river, the ships that it has borne over the decades and the people who either work on the ships or live by the river, all of them braving its historical waters. Of course, a film can be dual or undecided in its nature and still remain compelling precisely because of it. However, Crosscurrent is such in a way that shortchanges the talent at its disposal (Lee first and foremost, then the cast) as well as its subject of the Yangtze river.