Yang Chao: 'We shot Crosscurrent in a way rarely seen in Chinese film'

Cannes prize-winner talks about filming his ode to the Yangtze River

In 2004, Yang Chao won the Camera d'Or at Cannes for his debut film, Passages. But then, after breaking onto the international arthouse scene so auspiciously, nothing much else was heard from him. Now, 12 years later, it's become clear that Yang's been involved in a stunningly ambitious project. With gorgeous cinematography from Mark Lee Ping-Bing (In the Mood for Love), Yang's newest film Crosscurrent traces a path along the Yangtze to tell the story of a boat captain who runs into the same woman at every port. Shot on 35mm film with cast and crew living aboard a boat for the entire shoot, Crosscurrent represents a huge technical accomplishment.

Crosscurrent is like a poem in praise of the Yangtze. What was the inspiration for it?
I was born in Xinyang city, on the bank of the Huai River. When I was a child, the Yangtze was the first great natural wonder I ever encountered. The first time I laid eyes upon the river, I was stunned. From a fondness for rivers and boats, I developed an appreciation of that kind of boundless, unknowable sense of water and sky. My first film, Passages, had two scenes shot on the Yangtze, but those two scenes weren't enough. I had to make a whole film, something broad and beautiful depicting the Yangtze.

Yang CHao edit

From its conception in 2008 through to the end of shooting this year, the film took about eight years to put together. What was the process like?
The script took three years to write. There were about seven drafts for big changes, and I couldn't even count all the small revisions. The difficulty was that I didn't have any emotional experience of living on the water. Because of this, I travelled there about six times collecting local material. At first I travelled there for myself and then for the movie, continually collecting information and images on shipping routes and waterways, that kind of thing.

The Yangtze is really changing. A lot of scenery that was off the beaten path when I first went is now swarmed with tourists. It's only at night, when it all goes dark, that the river retains its earlier sense of vastness and mystery. There have been so many times I've stood on the front of a boat at nighttime, looking into the river water and feeling like I was going through the Milky Way. When it's that dark, I wouldn't even feel surprised if a dragon jumped out of the water.

Light and boat

The film's cinematography is beautiful. How did you get Mark Lee Ping-Bing on board?
Getting him was a natural choice. He's a master of light and shadow, but he's also a deep connoisseur of traditional culture and poetry. He was perfect for the film. His response was also very natural: that it would be his duty. His goal was to create the images together with me; creating the best images we could to portray the nurturing river was our common goal. Using film was simply the right choice for this. In particular, we used 4K scans afterwards, because the magnificence of the river has never been shown on a truly large screen in China.

Were there any difficulties in shooting on the water?
We shot Crosscurrent in a way rarely seen in Chinese film history: the cast and crew lived on one boat, and we added another boat for props and one for shooting. We always had at least three boats, and sometimes up to five. At our most majestic, we looked just like a fleet. We went from Shanghai straight down to Yibin in Sichuan, filming the whole way. The hardest thing was that we still didn't have enough time. Boats are a slow-moving, solemn mode of transportation. So every time we were shooting on the water, we had to wait an hour if we wanted to shoot a second time. Mark advised me that we had to be patient shooting on the Yangtze. Even though I knew that was true, I still got anxious. Shooting for 60 days was more like shooting 40 on the water, it was absolutely crazy. It's interesting, it's like we're drifting down a river of time and there's never enough.

Lady stares out of window

The most bitter thing was the cold. Going down the river in the cold rain, I could never wear enough to ward off the chilly fog. Our actors Qin Hao and Xin Zhilei also had to jump in the river when it was desperately cold. Now that I think about it, it was really too hard on them. Especially Xin Zhilei, who went in the river many times, and performed a long scene in the freezing river mud barefoot.

When we shot Crosscurrent, it was actually the coldest time of year for the Yangtze. We had heating turned on before we went to bed, but to save money the producer would have it turned off sometime between midnight and three, so a lot of people would wake up freezing.

Lady and Statues

Xin Zhilei plays a character in the film that many think represents the Yangtze, but you’ve previously dismissed this interpretation. Some have interpreted her domination of men as a feminist statement. Do you agree?
I'm not saying the idea that her character represents the Yangtze is wrong, just that it's the easiest reading of the film. The movie actually provides the possibility of multiple interpretations. For me, her character is real, a wanderer along the river... She could be a river spirit or mountain ghost or projection, all are possible. Going down the Yangtze is completely like going down a river of time, with her life revealed dock by dock. That kind of structure is what makes it so mysterious and ambiguous.

Goethe said the eternal female guides mankind to rise. In Crosscurrent, the eternal female guides mankind upstream. That's probably my own feminism.

Interview by Wang Xiaoyi, translation by Aaron Fox-Lerner

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