An ode to the Yangtze River, hailed as the cradle of Chinese civilization, “Crosscurrent” builds an entire 116-minute docu-fiction around an abstract metaphor that doesn’t hold water. Mainland helmer-scribe Yang Chao’s film cruises along with a ship’s captain who has sex with the same woman at various ports, which is meant to symbolize the river’s nurturing yet mutable relationship with humanity (chauvinistically envisioned here as male). Plotless, pretentiously literary and lousy at explaining geography, the movie fails to put Yang’s vision into a fictional framework that’s even remotely engaging. Marketing this visually ravishing but soporific pic to anyone other than nature channels will be like going up a river without a paddle.
Yang, who won the Camera d’Or at Cannes in 2004 for his debut, “Passages,” tries to equate the protag’s journey down the Yangtze with a cultural odyssey of the Chinese race. He dips into a hodgepodge of ideas including Buddhist faith, crime, relations with the animal world, and man-made alterations to the environment, but without elucidating any of them. There was a time, mostly during the Fifth Generation renaissance, when any artsy, visually stunning depiction of rustic China would be lapped up by Western arthouse audiences. But at the present moment, “Crosscurrent” simply looks out of sync with its milieu.
Kudos go entirely to master lenser Mark Lee Ping-bin for the rhapsodic, painterly visuals, which keep viewers’ eyes glued to the screen even when their minds have drifted downstream. To film chronologically, Lee spent six months on a ship with the cast and crew, using 35mm film stock and maneuvering bulky camera equipment on the shaky deck while the ship navigated challenging turns. Those with the proper technical training will recognize the Herculean cinematographic feat the movie represents.
Upon his father’s death, Gao Chun (Qin Hao, “Blind Massage”) takes over the family’s old courier ship and embarks from Shanghai with his trusty chief mate, Uncle Xiang (Jiang Hualin), and uppity deckhand, Wusheng (Wu Lipeng), to deliver a cargo to Yibin for dodgy businessman Luo (Tan Kai). Subscribing to superstition, he keeps a black fish in a basin without feeding it, hoping his father’s spirit will be set free and he can officially stop mourning.
When he stops over at Jiangyin, a town between Shanghai and Suzhou, he visits a prostitute, An Lu (Xin Zhilei), which means “safe land” in Chinese, and they proceed to have mind-blowing sex. He recalls seeing her figure in the wavering night light on the opposite side of the shore in Shanghai, and has a fling with her again every time he docks. With each encounter, she assumes a different identity, like a peasant woman on an islet that was deserted after a 1988 flood, or a troubled vagrant sleeping in a temple in Digang.
Converging at the Three Gorges, where the dam project has redirected the flow of the river, they part company forever. He discovers that An’s itinerary adheres to the same course mapped out by a book of anonymous poetry he found in the cabin, each poem written at the specific ports where he disembarked. Despite complications arising from his cargo (obviously contraband), he steers his ship upstream to track her down. On the 98th day of his journey, some kind of mystical epiphany awaits him at the source of the Yangtze, in Tibet’s Chumar River, but audiences will be too dazed by the film’s meandering course at that point to care.
The above synopsis ascribes more structure to what actually pans out on screen than there really is. Characters have no life beyond their symbolic meaning. Lu is supposed to be a river goddess making an arduous journey upstream to the Yangtze’s source. When Chun follows her, the two are paradoxically traveling in reverse chronology — she becomes younger (though she doesn’t look it), while he ages day by day. This may sound like some deep metaphysical reflection, but in the execution, it’s empty and confouding.
Unless one knows the topography and recognizes the historic landmarks, it will be hard to grasp the geographical context and chronology of what we’re seeing. Chun spends a lot of time leaning off the deck and gazing into the void. Lu’s thoughts are mostly articulated by an anonymous male narrator, and when she speaks, it sounds as if she’s reciting lines from philosophical or theological tracts.
Had it been content to remain a visual travelogue with nice-looking scenery, “Crosscurrent” would have been a pleasant, undemanding experience. Yet, Yang can’t leave the images alone, superimposing excerpts of poems on screen and pouring out incessantly dry, pretentious intellectual musings such as “I think just living is a sin” and “I treasure the purity of my soul.”
Tech credits are fine, given the modest budget and the difficulty of shooting mostly on site. An Wei’s somber, full-bodied cello score soulfully mirrors the river’s flow. Fang Tao and Hao Zhiyu do a capable job of refining the sound, most of which was recorded live. Top mainland editor Kong Jinlei (“Blind Massage”) and Yang Mingming set a serene rhythm but cannot salvage the disjointed, undramatic narrative. Lee’s immaculately composed and lit shots are a marvel to behold, capturing Yangtze’s ever-changing shape and movements and the surrounding natural landscapes and architecture in all their misty, ethereal glory.