The Yangtze River has played an important part in Chinese history, bringing life, death and industrial growth to the country. Beijing Film Academy graduate Yang Chao’s Crosscurrent uses the river as its driving force, its current acting like the hands of a clock pushing time forward. Traversing China, from the riches of Shanghai’s financial hub, to the nation’s impoverished hinterlands, Yang combines a daring mix of realism and lyrical fantasy to create a sense of where China is drifting. The narrative of the film is both literally and figuratively framed by the monstrous, eroding landscape of the Yangtze.
Crosscurrent is a surreal ghost story following Gao Chun (Qin Hao), a young captain of a cargo ship, as he chases a woman from a different time. Chun’s has a cultured mind, his room filled with books yet he spends his days travelling up and down the Yangtze transporting random goods across the river’s numerous industrial cities. Chun is searching for love after his father’s recent death, yet each woman he meets is the same person, a young woman named An Lu, who is some how linked to a book of poetry he discovers hidden beneath one of the ship’s engines. Each poem is linked to one of the cities that line the river, including those lost to flooding.
When Chun arrives at the Three Gorges Dam, whose construction displaced more than a million people from the now-submerged towns and villages, Yang takes a moment to ponder the magnitude of this development. Its a powerfully moving rest bite from Chun’s search for An and a scene filled with unspoken emotion. Similarities with Jia Zhangke’s Still Life are unavoidable, with both films sharing themes of alienation and globalisation yet Crosscurrent use a more haptic and ruminative approach to articulate its message. Though its human protagonists are intriguing enough, the most arresting presence remains the river and the memories saturated in its banks.
Lensed by acclaimed Taiwanese cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-Bing (In the Mood for Love and most recently The Assassin) the grace and compassion of his camera movements capture the beautiful and misery of Chun’s journey, with shots ranging from the earthy to the stylised, providing a continuous shifting exchange between the past and the present. Western audiences will no doubt struggle with the film’s airy plot and anaesthetising visuals, yet this is a film to be felt rather than understood. Yang’s odyssey through the artery of China merges imagery and poetry to create a film of uncontrollable sadness and its from this sadness that its meaning can be found. Rarely has China’s explosive economic growth been captured with such grace and with such a heavy heart.
The 2016 Berlin Film Festival takes place between 11-21 February. Follow our coverage here.
Patrick Gamble | @PatrickJGamble