Film Review: Crosscurrent

Cargo captain journeys up the Yangtze River, following an elusive woman and her poetry. Stunning imagery is the key element of a movie weighed down by metaphors.
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Rich with allusions to Chinese culture and tradition, Crosscurrent will be tough sledding for U.S. viewers. Writer-director Yang Chao uses poetry, art, music and a dense, twisting narrative to explore several metaphors built around the Yangtze River. Time as a river, time as a circle, the past and future submerged in the present, the present predestined by fate, fate determined by geography. Take your pick: Crosscurrent could be about any or all of them.

In basic terms, Crosscurrent follows Gao Chun (Qin Hao), skipper of an aging barge, as he transports a load of suspicious cargo from Shanghai to Luzhou. Along the way he peruses a book of handwritten poetry that seems to relate what he encountered in the past and present.

Gao also becomes intrigued by glimpses of a woman. First she appears to be a prostitute working near Shanghai, but as the barge travels upriver, she seems to transform into An Lu (Xin Zhilei), a woman of many interests and skills. By the time the barge approaches the source of the Yangtze, Gao is ready to abandon his job to pursue An into the Tibetan mountains.

What the plot actually "means" is up to the viewer to decide. And while the dialogue and poetry are subtitled, it's difficult for Western viewers to appreciate or even understand the meaning of individual lines, moments, conflicts or images—let alone decipher their cultural subtexts or political overtones.

Critical reaction was mixed when Crosscurrent screened at the Berlin International Film Festival, but everyone could agree that Mark Lee Ping-Bing's cinematography was astonishing. Lee, who has worked with directors like Wong Kar Wai, Ann Hui and Hou Hsiao-Hsien, received the Silver Bear Award for Outstanding Artistic Contribution at the festival.

Lee shot Crosscurrent on location, using 35mm film and relying almost entirely on existing light. Given the difficulty of working on a moving barge that made second takes difficult or impossible, it's remarkable that Lee got any images at all.

But Crosscurrent is hypnotically ravishing to watch, as seductive a visual journey as any cinephile could want. Lee's precise framing captures one-of-a-kind moments, like An Lu on shore framed within a cabin railing as the barge rounds a bend in the river. His mastery of exposure allows him to shoot by firelight on the banks of the river at twilight, or to follow sunlight bouncing off water and reflecting in the leaves of trees.

Lee's tour-de-force cinematography goes a long way to compensate for Yang Chao's complicated and obscure story.

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