“Time, like a river, flows both day and night” as the narrator of Yang Chao’s poetical return to source Crosscurrent (長江圖, Chang Jiang Tu) tells us early on. Like the crosscurrent of the title, ship’s captain Chun sails forth yet also in retrograde as he chases a love he can never truly embrace. Truth be told, the philosophical poetry of a lonely sailor condemned to sail a predetermined course at the mercy of the winds and tides is often obscure and confused, like the half mad ramblings of one who’s spent too much time all alone at sea. Yet his melancholy passage is more metaphor than reality, or several interconnected metaphors as water yearns for shore but is pulled towards the ocean, a man yearns to free himself of his father’s spirit, and mankind yearns for the land yet disrupts and destroys it in its quest for mastery. Often frustrating in its obscurity, Crosscurrent’s breathtaking visuals are the key to unlocking its meditative sadness as they paint the beautiful landscape in its own conflicting colours.
Gao Chun (Qin Hao), a melancholy young man, is mourning the death of his father in all the ways the river expects. Taking over his father’s cargo boat, Chun dutifully catches and keeps the blackfish that is the keeper of his father’s spirit, only once it starves to death will his spirit be free. Though the boat is a large one, Chun has only two other members of crew – his uncle, Xiang, and longstanding deckhand Wusheng. They have little business but Wusheng has managed to find them a new client who needs something or other transported on the hush hush. Once the mysterious cargo has been loaded, Chun manages to negotiate some extra hush money seeing as there’s obviously something not quite right here.
Part way through their journey up the Yangtze River, Chun finds a mysterious ledger hidden away on the boat which contains a number of poems each annotated with the name of a particular harbour. Linked to the book, Chun also encounters a mysterious woman, An Lu, and eventually strikes up a relationship with her during one of his infrequent returns to shore. Chun and An Lu are travelling in the same direction yet also through and past each other. Meeting and parting the pair re-encounter each other on land or make do with fleeting glances from sea to shore but An Lu (Xin Zhilei) is no ordinary woman, each time the same yet strikingly different as she too makes her way towards the origin of all things.
The name of the mysterious woman is “An Lu” – “safe land”. Chun, a sailor adrift on the wide river is always looking for safe harbour and generally finds it waiting for him, even occasionally put out at his lack of arrival. What or who she is remains obscure. An Lu is at once a harbour girl, prostitute, nun, hermit, and lover of all mankind who belongs to no man but refuses no one. Chun yearns for her, slowing the passage of his boat to look for her among the thick foliage of cliffside pathways. Yet there are reasons why they can only be together for short spaces of time. As the sea and the shore, theirs is a relationship of permanent though frustrated, ebbing connection.
As he follows An Lu, Chun reads his poetry like scripture and travels the river against the tide heading for its origin. The life giving river becomes a kind of metaphor as Chun witnesses how its gifts have been misused and subverted by man who wants to master it rather live with its obvious beauty. Passing through ruined villages, Chun eventually makes a gruelling two day passage through the Three Gorges Dam. This giant, manmade structure cleaves the land in two, leaving our two lovers forever separated as the past from the future. The river which flows both day and night, no longer flows at all.
Equal parts spiritual and geographical odyssey, Crosscurrent is a tale of man and landscape, of nationhood, history, and memory all condensed into a wide flowing river. Lyrical yet obscure, its truth is opaque and difficult to discern yet no less deeply felt. Shooting on 35mm and using mostly natural light in harsh conditions, Mark Lee Ping-bing’s cinematography is nothing short of extraordinary, capturing all of this infinite sadness with an eternal aesthetic beauty. China swims against the tide as Chun and An Lu draw closer only by pulling further apart but all there may be at the end of the journey is the anxious comfort of eternal waiting.
Crosscurrent was screened as part of the 7th Chinese Visual Festival.
Original trailer (English subtitles)