Berlinale-Blogger 2016 “Crosscurrent” – Road movie on the water

"Crosscurrent" | ©Berlinale

Yang Chao's (杨超) "Crosscurrent", the only Chinese film in the Competition section this year, is a road movie on a boat, where atmosphere and imagery override narrative and characterisation.

As the title literally means “the picture of Yangtze River (长江)”, Crosscurrent is a eulogy of the Yangtze River, once the muse of some of the most important art works in Chinese history whose images have drastically changed since the building of Three Gorges Dam (三峡大坝). As Gao Chun (高淳)goes upstream with his recently-deceased father's small, rusty and decrepit cargo ship, he discovers a manuscript of poems with footnotes corresponding to ports along Yangtze River, and when stopping there, at each of them he encounters the same mysterious woman named An Lu (安陆).

An Lu has many faces; she is the mother figure, the prostitute, the lover, the child, the femme fatale, the nun, the river goddess – she is both the profane and the spiritual, and both the physical and the metaphorical. Gao Chun's journey on the Yangtze River thus feels like an experience of reincarnations, metamorphoses, and parallel worlds, all embedded in buddhist metaphors and symbols. As much as Crosscurrent is mystic and labyrinthine, it is no Last Year in Marienbad, the masterpiece by Alain Resnais from 1961. With mysticism and poeticism being punctuated by a dozen of poems and some incongruent moments of socio-realism, romance, thriller, crime and gangsterdom, it seems like an ambitious film at times which is swaying between reaching ambiguity and seeking to be understood – with the voiceover trying to do both at the same time and ending up steering without a clear sense of direction.

Crosscurrent's cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-bing's (李屏宾) winning of the Silver Bear for Outstanding Artistic Contribution compensates this lack of direction by rendering Yangtze River breathtakingly beautiful under all conditions – covered in mist, in rain or under sunshine. His camera movement is poetry itself, impregnated with mesmerising contrasts between light and darkness, river and land, open space and restrained indoor shots, urbanisation and historicisation, nostalgia and spirituality.

What will stay in my mind for a long time are those moments when the ship cruises at dusk or dawn, and the silhouettes of the ship and the mountains are blurred into the background becoming barely visible – it is the time when cinema most approaches Chinese ink painting and calligraphy and the most dreamy moments of Yangtze River.