'Crosscurrent' ('Chang Jiang Tu'): Berlin Review

'Crosscurrent' film still - H 2016
Courtesy of Berlin Film Festival
Beautiful romanticism in search of a narrative shore.

A journey up China’s Yangtze River becomes mystical poetry in this Berlin competition entry.

The winter journey of a small cargo boat up the Yangtze River, from Shanghai to its source in the high mountains, becomes the excuse for a mystical mind trip of inner discovery in writer-director Yang Chao’s Crosscurrent (Chang Jiang Tu). Much like his previous film Passages, which won a Camera d’Or at Cannes in 2004, it’s all about metaphor and mood, while the storytelling is so lightweight it might not exist. Without it, this drunken boat sailing on poetry can't hold interest for its entire two hour running time. Audiences willing to forego narrative for the sake of basking in its gorgeous cinematography, haunting poetry and some splendid views of inland China are likely to congregate at film festivals.  

A project 10 years in the making after Yang brought the screenplay to a Cannes workshop, Crosscurrent seems to address a youthful audience searching for its path in life. Drifting through seas of moody romantic doubts and yearning, the scenically beat-up cargo boat commanded by young captain Gao Chun (Qin Hao, the lead in Ye Lou’s Blind Massage) chugs its way upriver. Chun’s father, the boat owner, has recently died, and he keeps a black fish in an incense bowl, waiting for it to die so Dad’s spirit can be released. This is the first intimation of the mystical/traditional/Buddhist themes that underpin the film and which will turn viewers either on or off, depending on their persuasion.

The film’s unique characteristic is that it follows the rhythm of poems. These have been written by some long-gone deckhand who voiced his melancholy and feelings of despair in a secret diary. When Chun stumbles across the hand-written book, he is captivated by its depth and longing. From that point on, he charts his course by the river ports in the poems, and in each place he finds the same woman waiting for him.

While his crew of two, which includes kindly, old alcoholic Uncle Xiang (Jiang Hualin) and needlessly resentful young deckhand, Wu Sheng (Wu Lipeng), is still moored in the fog of Shanghai harbor, Chun first catches sight of the beautiful An Lu (Xin Zhilei) who stares back at him from a boat even more decrepit than his own. When he approaches her, she shares her bed without further preliminaries. It takes Chun’s voiceover to explain that although this is their first encounter, it is far from being just casual sex.

An Lu, as gradually becomes apparent when she magically turns up in distant places along the river, is a river spirit herself. In one of her incarnations, she is a devout Buddhist living in a remote temple, although she doesn’t shave her head like the other nuns. She belongs to no man and refuses no one who comes to her. So much for Chun’s longing to "have a woman of my own."

As the ultimate romantic Chinese travelogue, the film delivers aesthetic pleasures far beyond the ken of National Geographic. The Yangtze becomes increasingly the protagonist as they pass ports with names like Yunyang, Pengze and Fuling, all the way to the Yichang mountains. Many of the scenic towns have been gutted by flooding and many old buildings have been relegated to a watery grave with the construction of the controversial Three Gorges Dam, whose sluice gates provide a breathtaking scene of passage for the little boat.

Along the way, ancient Buddhist temples and statues dot the shore, mountains, and islands in the river. They are captured in stunning long shots by Mark Lee Ping-Bing, a DOP on Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love. Echoing his work on Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin are the strongly affecting landscapes that seem to leap out of Chinese paintings. An Wei’s subdued soundtrack is also exceptionally lovely.

Production companies: Trend Cultural Investment Co., Ray Production, Just Show Production Beijing, Shandogn Jiabo Culture Development Co.
Cast: Qin Hao, Xin Zhilei, Wu Linpeng, Wang Hongwei, Jiang Hualin
Director, screenwriter: Yang Chao
Producers: Wang Yu, Ha Bo
Director of photography: Mark Lee Ping-Bing
Production designer: Zhao Ye
Editors: Yang Mingming, Kong Jinlei
Music: An Wei
World sales: Ray Produktion  
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Competition)

116 minutes