After winning Cannes' 2004 Palme d'Or in the Un Certain Regard competition, Yang Chao almost completely disappeared from the stage. As it turns out he wasn't truly gone, just working very hard on his next feature film. Chang Jiang Tu [Crosscurrent] was 10 years in the making and proved to be worth the wait. It's not a very easy or accessible film, but if you're used to arthouse cinema and you're somewhat accustomed to watching Chinese films this is an easy recommend.
China's film market is a strange and alien place. There's money flowing everywhere and everyone wants a piece of the cake. The opening credits of Chang Jiang Tu start with a total of 25 (!) producers, divided into executive, associate, co and plain categories, not something you see very often when watching an arthouse film. Don't worry though, these producers are just there for financial and/or prestigious reasons, butting in and demanding something commercially viable clearly wasn't on their agenda.
Yang Chao isn't too bothered by narrative constraints. There's a very thin premise that gets his main character from A to B, but that's hardly enough to keep the audience awake. Instead Chao aims for a moody, poetic yet downbeat atmosphere. Symbolism and poetry take center stage, with the Yangtze river forming the perfect setting for a sullen trip into the very heart of China. Chao still finds a lot beauty in all of it though, so it's anything but a depressive journey, just not a very merry one.
After his father's death, Gao Chun inherits his boat and decides to honor his old man's legacy. His first assignment involves transporting a no questions asked cargo up the Yangtze river. Chun finds a poetry book amongst his father's old junk which describes the cities alongside the Yangtze river, furthermore Chun sees a different incarnation of the same women in every port he visits. Slowly but surely the trip up the Yangtze starts to chip away at Chun's mental health and before long it's as if he is living in a dream.
The cinematography was handled by Ping Bin Lee. Maybe not the most resounding name, but for years he handled the films of Hsiao-Hsien Hou and delivered some standout work on Tran's Noruwei no Mori, Koreeda's Kuki Ningyo and Jiang's Tai Yang Zhao Chang Sheng Qi. Lee doesn't disappoint in the slightest, the film's blues and grays are incredibly atmospheric, the camera work is top notch and even though some of the locations look a little dreary, Lee always manages to find beauty in them.
The soundtrack is fitting, with An Wei’s dark and lonely cello-based melodies running underneath Lee's lush visuals. But in the end it wasn't the music nor the visuals that drew me into the film, instead I got hooked on its soundscapes. The sounds of splashing waves, clanking metal and roaring ship engines are pretty much omnipresent and put me in an almost trance-like state. In combination with the slow, moody pacing it makes for a very drowsy, yet warm and immersive experience. Chao's use of sound here is exemplary.
The cast is small and the few returning actors have little dialogue to work with. The main character is played by Hao Qin, an actor who is slowly working himself up as someone with global appeal. He's been appearing in some international-facing Chinese films and has managed to stand out each and every time. Zhilei Xin on the other hand is a fresh face, but she holds up remarkably well besides Qin. While their parts are relatively shallow, both to a terrific job with the bits they are given.
As the film progresses and Chun travels deeper inland, the film becomes weirder and more abstract. If you're trying to cling to a narrative this will become a problem, since you'll be increasingly grasping at straws. If you manage to let yourself be swept away by the film's atmospheric tides though, it feels like the film could just go on forever. Chao constructs such a deep, churning whirlpool of dark, melancholic and poetic emotions that you'll find yourself unable to break free from the screen once the credits start rolling.
Chang Jiang Tu is probably a little too impenetrable to become a big festival favorite, but if you're a dedicated arthouse fan Chao's latest shouldn't pose too much of a problem and once the film has you in its grip the payoff is grand. Lush visuals, captivating soundscapes and solid acting make for a brooding, dense and enveloping experience. Don't be put off by the battery of producers, they're not their to hijack Chao's film, Yang Chao is completely in control and delivers one of the best Chinese films of the year.