On Yang Chao’s Crosscurrent (2016)

Bart Testa

While making the rounds of interviews prior to its appearance on the film festival circuit, director Yang Chao expressed anxiety about the reception that his new film, Crosscurrent, would receive. He was pleased that the film was given a slot in the Berlin International Festival’s competition, but he fretted that the jury members would likely hold to fixed ideas about Chinese films (he did not say what these might be) and wondered whether crosscurrent might be able to change their outlooks. Whether or not his film changed anyone’s mind, it went on to win Berlin’s Silver Bear. Film critics, however, were much less sympathetic, or flexible, and most of them panned Crosscurrent. While admiring its visual elegance, they regarded its confused plotting and gnomic thematic pretenses to be fatal flaws. The career of Crosscurrent basically ended there.

Now, this reception could have been a question of context – in this case set ideas about Chinese films – or set expectations about what kind of film a feature-length (almost two hours) 35mm production should be like. Of course, the enthusiastic acceptance of challenging Chinese language films – and one thinks immediately of Platform and Still Life, Flowers of Shanghai and Suzhou River – has given ample evidence of a tolerant expectation of contemporary Chinese films. It could also be a question of whether Yang Chao did or did not manage to resolve the Crosscurrent project – as a story, or even an audio-visual experience – that might be paraphrased and interpreted cogently.

I will come back to these questions. But first some background on the film, which might help explain some of the difficulties that Crosscurrent poses for even critics and viewers.

Yang Chao conceived the film in 2008, it would seem as a film of a river, the Yangtze. He had only made one feature previously, Passages, in 2004, which was shown successfully at Cannes. A director associated – loosely – with the Sixth Generation of Beijing Film Academy directors, he has been active as a filmmaker since 1997, but a good deal of the time was spent as a teacher and in making short pieces. His truncated track record precluded critics’ taking an auteurist angle on whatever eccentricity or obscurity Crosscurrent presented. The film had to stand alone, which was part of the problem.

Yang’s gestation of the film was lengthy. He spent considerable time visiting sites along the enormous length of the Yangtze searching for both inspiration and locations, and eventually decided that the film would travel the river from Shanghai to its source in Yibin. He spent three years writing the script and seeking financing. Yang says that everyone knew the kind of film that he was trying to make, in his words, “an art-house film.” In a coup crucial to the project, he managed to recruit the brilliant Taiwanese cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-Bing, best known for Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000) and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin (2015) and no stranger to lengthy and difficult shoots. It was Lee who persuaded Yang that the film must be made in 35mm rather than a digital format (It might well be the last Chinese film to be made on celluloid). Yang assembled a small cast, led by an experienced actor, Qin Hao as his protagonist Gao Chun, the captain of a small river freighter inherited from the recent death of his father; and newcomer Xin Zhilei as An Lu, the enigmatic woman whom he finds at ports of call along the voyage and whose identity changes each time, starting as a prostitute with whom Chun has a sexual encounter.

The production itself was both peculiar and lengthy. The initial shoot, in 2012, of some sixty days took place in the dead of winter and covered 2000 kilometers with the cast and crew housed on one boat, with equipment on two others. Yang has explained that he wanted a winter bleakness, night and cold, and not the lively character of the Yangtze in spring and summer. In fact, Crosscurrent, for a Chinese film, depicts a society remarkably unpopulated. Money had run out before the shoot was concluded and, after lengthy efforts at refinancing, the cast and crew were reassembled for a second period of production. The editing process was even more torturous. Three teams of editors went at the material until the third, Yang Mingming, enabled Yang in finding his film in the material. The director explains that the problem laid with him, that he was too tied to the structure of his written script and that Crosscurrent needed to be composed more freely in the editing, and that freedom is what Yang Mingming brought to the process. That the film might have lost narrative cogency as a result is possible but hard to say.

The complications in making the film and the result may have led Yang Chao to claim his film as “new in the field” and so the viewer might find it challenging and even obscure. As noted above, this has proven to be true of most of the film’s critics. When asked "Why the Yangtze?”, he responded that it is a river with a long history in Chinese poetry. The film itself is punctuated with poetry passages inscribed in fine calligraphy over shots of the river and, early in the film, Gao Chun comes into possession (seemingly left on his boat) of a dampened and stained book of verse, as well as a manuscript map charting the river and towns and cities along it. To this he adds notations of Au Lu’s appearances, and later the river’s newest landmark, the Three Gorges Dam.

As the voyage begins, Chun, in mourning for his father, has two crewmates, his aged Uncle Xiang (Jiang Hualin), the ship’s mechanic, and the young mate Wusheng (Wu Liping). They make a deal with the shadowy businessman to transport contraband, even receiving a risk bonus. This plot intrigue is forgotten for most of the film and returns only after the impatient Wusheng leaves the ship, and Uncle Xiang deserts Chun without explanation, only leaving a note to say he has jettisoned the illegal cargo. Near the end of the film, the businessman sends someone to stab Chun. Collapsed and bleeding, he then sees An Lu the last time, smiling and submerged in the river. He survives the stabbing in the penultimate segment the film showing him in Tibet where he discovers An Lu’s mother’s grave stone.

The plot is extremely episodic and at times confusingly attenuated. Less interested in his scripted plot (assuming there was more of it), Yang is more intent on the film’s principal structuring principle: the stages of the voyage, marked by Chun’s short excursions on land during which he usually (but not always) encounters An Lu. The director is coy about what the woman means? He says she should prompt multiple interpretations. When asked what the film itself is about, Yang starts with the plot – “The love between a young girl and frustrated literary failure of a man.” There is scant indication in the film that Chun has any literary ambitions, however. Yang adds that the film is about the river and how two lovers are separated by time and place. Many reviewers have remarked that the temporal separation entails Chun aging as he goes up the Yangtze while An Lu grows younger. However, their aging and its reversal are hardly visible in their faces, bodies or dress.

So, the director’s cues for how to watch Crosscurrent seem, on one hand, obvious and on the other hand, not helpful. Let me suggest two other ways to view this film. The first is that the intent – or the outcome of the shoot – is an immersion in the vision and sounds of the Yangtze River, from a perspective of solitude and temporal indulgence. Mark Lee Ping-bing’s framing, his extraordinary sensitivity to the cold light, the greys and dark blues, their variety within the restrictions of night and fog shooting, in effect, bring the solitary viewer to the river for long indulgences in Stimmung, a poetry of mood. An Wei’s music (leaning on the cello) amplifies the effect with subtle gravity. The editing is languid and steady, without much in the way of either narrative propulsion or accentuation. It is this, Lee’s film-within-the-film, that provides Crosscurrent with its poetry, and not the intermittent poetry texts, which seem mostly to be laments stemming from some other space-time. The melancholy that Crosscurrent captures utterly dominates the film.

Gao Chun is less a character than a channel, a point of narration, for what the viewer sees and hears. As often as the montage consists of a series of detached long and extreme long shots, there are series that return, seriatim, to Chun in close-up, as the attentive watcher of the waters and the shore lines. This is, I think, enough to sustain the pleasure of Crosscurrent, which, as one critic remarks, could have been a travelogue film, but this is not right either. The pleasure this film provides is too demanding, too stringent, and the imagery too suggestive (as well as being entirely real) for travelogue. Lee’s cinematography both captures and transforms, and it is to Yang’s credit that the editing he finally devised with Yang Mingming allows Lee’s cinematography to unfold each shot in its own time and to lend the film its mesmerizing meter.

But there is a final suggestion to be offered. Crosscurrent belongs to a narrative motif that is seen rarely but importantly: a man, usually a poet or artist, encounters a beautiful but enigmatic woman. Their initial encounter is erotically charged, whether consummated (as it is here) or not. The woman disappears and thereafter the man experiences a subtle or not-so subtle derangement of the senses that casts spaces, locales and enclosures, as suggestive of her presence, which sometimes is again realized, often not. This is the motif, for example, of Andre Breton’s novel Nadja (1928) and it forms the plot armature of Yang’s Sixth Generation contemporary Lou Ye’s Suzhou River (2000) and, among European directors’,Michelangelo Antonioni’s Identification of a Woman (1982), for example. Crosscurrent deploys the same or similar narrative motif, but with problems still arising because the character An Lu is too burdened with literary “poetic” associations that do threaten to capsize the film into pretentiousness, or some kind of spectral haunting whereas the film-within-the film given to us by Lee’s camera and the music and sound, and by the Yangtze are already haunting enough to brace the encounters between Gao Chun and An Lu beautifully enough. In short, Yang’s script and direction, despite the freedom of the editing, is still too literary for the film he has made.

Bart Testa is associate professor (teaching stream) at the Cinema Studies Institute, University of Toronto. He teaches a wide range of course including a year-long bi-annual course in Chinese Cinemas.