How 'Crosscurrent' Director Shot a Chinese-Specific Arthouse Film on Boats (Q&A)

Yang Chao Berlin Getty H 2016
Getty Images

Yang Chao Berlin Getty H 2016

Yang Chao discusses why his second feature is a love letter to the Yangtze River and how the film shoot made him want to learn to swim.

Director Yang Chao's second feature, Crosscurrent, was the sole Chinese work to compete at last month’s Berlin International Film Festival, where it beguiled, bedeviled and divided critics. The picture is getting another showing at the Hong Kong International Film Festival this week.

Yang describes the film as a love letter to China’s mighty Yangtze River, a waterway that has captivated Chinese poets and artists across the ages, and thus, serves as a potent marker of change in the country’s complicated evolution. This theme undergirds the film’s meager, enigmatic plot. The film follows young riverboat captain Gao Chun, played by Qin Hao, as he pilots a decaying industrial freighter some 3,900 miles up the Yangtze, from its mouth in Shanghai to its source in the highlands of Tibet.

Aboard the boat, Chun discovers a mysterious book of poetry written by a former captain sometime in the 1990s. The book contains angst-ridden philosophical musings about the course of contemporary China, along with a map detailing the locations of villages along the river. At each port on the map, Chun encounters a beautiful young woman, An Lu (Xin Zhi Lei), whose identity and intentions shift with each meeting.

A work ten years in the making, Crosscurrent emerged from a 2005 talent campus at the Cannes Film Festival, where Yang’s debut feature Passages won a Camera d’Or in 2004. In Berlin, the film was honored with a Silver Bear for Outstanding Artistic Contribution for the spellbinding camerawork of cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-Bing (The Assassin).

Chao sat down with THR to discuss what it was like to live and work on China’s largest river, the prospects for indie cinema in his country and how to parse the picture’s peculiar love story.

What was it like making this film?

It was a very unconventional shoot. Unlike other crews that structure the shoot in a strategic way, stopping and starting at different points, and only bringing in the cast when you’re ready for them, our entire cast and crew lived together on one boat and another ship carried all of the props and equipment. We sailed together from Shanghai to Yibin, which is a few thousand [miles]. We made the film together during this journey. One of the biggest challenges was getting permission. Because the Yangtze is such a long river, it traverses many different jurisdictions and provinces, so we had to do a lot of work to convince the public transportation bureaus into letting us shoot on different stretches of the river.

Had you spent time on boats before?

As a child, I grew up beside a small river, but I couldn’t swim. I’ve always had a craving for swimming and I’ve always been jealous of people who can swim. So I think I have this obsession with water. I had never spent anytime on boats before, but I did a lot of prep work and felt very prepared by the time we began shooting. The experience onboard was either like being part of a big family, where everyone lives and eats together intimately, or it was like being stuck on in a floating prison. [Laughs.] The bell rang and everyone came out with their meal box for lunch and dinner breaks, and then the bell rang again and everyone had to get back to work.

The highlight in terms of relaxation, was that the frater itself wasn’t a small one. On the fourth floor, there was a bar area equipped by the producer with snacks and drinks. We would gather up there at night and have long discussions about the project, or just about life, as we floated along the river.

The poetry and philosophical reflections in the film seem to present the Yangtze as a marker of change in China.

The poems in the book, which are read in voiceover in each chapter, were written by a [real] captain when he was a younger man, in the 1990s. He was an intellectual poet and not a successful one. Those poems were the loyal record of his feelings towards China in the 1990s — his anger, his complains and his dissatisfaction back then. That’s a highlight in the film, which is the reflection of an image of China that was not prevented, a China of adversity and injustice, which comes through the poems. In the film, the poet is more like a prophet, so his poems back then were a reflection of the China that is not presented image-wise.

Are there any hints you can offer to the audience on how to interpret the enigmatic love story at the heart of the film?

This isn’t an ordinary love story. It’s magical love. It’s not sweet. It’s a story of heartbreak and loss. The male protagonist and the female protagonist are two souls that have been tortured by the afterlife. Their love only exists in the magic of the river, and when the magic is gone, their love vanishes. It’s a very unconventional emotion or feeling that I’m trying to convey. That being said, the possibility of real love is not possible from the very beginning. The love is closely related to the river. The love only exists when the two meet at different ports. When the magic of the river is gone, the male protagonist gives up his search for lost love through time.

It’s quite difficult to get an arthouse-style film of this kind released in China. Are you optimistic that ordinary people in China will get to see it?

Of course, this film was primarily made for the Chinese audience. It has historical and cultural dimensions and sentiments that I think you need to be Chinese — need to have lived through these past two decades of change in China — to fully appreciate. I’m actually quite optimistic. We’re holding discussions for an April or May release. The rising commercial box office in China has changed the outlook of the entire industry. It may take more time, but I am optimistic that there will be a space for arthouse films in China. Aesthetically, this film is a powerful example, which I believe will strike a cord with the Chinese audience.