Some works of art, especially in countries beset by heavy censorship, must work in circuitous allusion—poetic, cultural, historical—to say what they feel needs to be said. Those who have been watching the state-approved films by Chinese director Jia Zhangke (including his latest, Mountains May Depart) and films by Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul (including his latest, Cemetery of Splendor) will be familiar with how charged this expressive need and tactic can be. At its best, films such as these burst upon the viewer like the revelation of a secret language whose codex we can spy and begin to piece together—and whose surface qualities, even if cryptic, are felt to be all the more powerful for the sub-currents discernible below, charged from within.
But the downside of such a cinematic language results in a picture like Crosscurrent, directed by Yang Chao, which is the Chinese film in Berlin's competition this year. The surface is indeed rich and sensual: set on a river barge traveling up the Yangtze from Shanghai to Yinbin, the movie is shot on 35mm film by cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-bin in a darkly cloudy palette of patina-heavy blues, rusted grays, dirty sand and searching floodlight beams, creating an atmosphere mixing smog and fog into an scrolling morass that looks like half a dream of the future and half a step back in time.
Yet the journey itself is laden with meaning and waypoints unclear to me. The young and handsome barge captain mourns his recently deceased father while traveling up river on a delivery, but his path is less defined by his sorrow or his smuggled cargo than by a manuscript he finds in the hold written by a poet on a previous river journey, naming poems after each port of call. (The tidy but evocative poems appear on-screen, much like last year's great Chinese independent film, Poet on a Business Trip.) On the shore, a young prostitute follows the boatman's journey, or perhaps is a figure from the poems and he their protagonist, and the two intersect upon landfall at Buddhist temples, a flooded ghost town, the Three Gorges dam, and other destinations clearly imbued with specific import. But of what I do not know. The prostitute tells us a wonderful tale she keeps from the captain, of a tryst in the abandoned town between a prostitute and a traveler who wakes up to find his body exchanged with hers—one of the more lucid moments drawing out mythic qualities from an often hazy story. This vagueness is exacerbated by the trite nature of these figures and their relationship which hardly escapes over-worn archetype, the dour dockyard hooker chased by the dreamy captain, little being done to characterize the two other than the malaise typical of languorous art cinema.
But the iconography of Crosscurrent remains powerful despite its tenuous symbolic journey. The film pulls from the evocations of an earlier cinema, that of the first half of the 20th century, when means of transport around urban centers—trains, buses, and boats—were the focal point for motion pictures of equal parts social realism and more lyrical or comic impulses. I'm thinking, for example, of Jean Vigo's gorgeous barge tale L'atalante, John Ford's sublime river comedy Steamboat Round the Bend or Buster Keaton's silent era Steamboat Bill, Jr.: films where ships, docks, currents, ports of call, passing town folk, captains and crew are connected through a vivid flow conjuring a romantic life that marries work, living and traveling through the world as one and the same singular existence embodied in the humbly majestic existence of the riverboat. This is certainly the most beautiful aspect of Crosscurrent, its images of its shit-kicker vessel heading up the river towards the source of the Yangtze, chasing the clouded allure of grief, love and profit. It's a real boat floating in a real river past real cities, a simple fact that communicates a grand, intangible power upon those so used to the assistance of computers in the cinema, or of movies unable to reveal the awesome scope of some of the world's most normal activities. Even without a legend to decode the specifics of this film, Crosscurrent does present a physically impressive vision that such quietly exalted lives are still afloat, searching within themselves and outside, on the shore, for the answers to life's questions.
On a far more modest scale, the Forum is also featuring a Chinese film whose language moves in the realm of externally obscure cultural evocation. On an evidently threadbare budget, the story of Life After Life, produced by Jia Zhangke, is similarly episodic, sketching together anecdotes that occur when the spirit of a deceased mother inhabits the body of her young son. She modestly desires her husband and the body of her boy to perform a transformative act: to remove and transplant a tree from their front yard to another location. But she is not urgent in her demand. While "she" and her husband travel around their home looking for assistance with the tree they also, in a quiet way, quest to meet her family again, to see her aged parents and the brothers who have quarreled with the husband after his young wife's accidental death, and to seek the animal reincarnations of the husband's deceased parents.
Landscapes of autumnal colors and dusty texture dominates the father-son-(mother)'s quest, which ranges over forested hills, dilapidated houses built in old mining caves, industrial towns, small villages, and grazing land. Unfortunately, director Zhang Hanyi presents a fragmented portrait of the family's region, where the arrangement of village, city and countryside is too confused to form a picture of the geographic and social relationship between the father and son, their extended family and nearby community. This fragmentation extends to the storytelling, which is less a clear path for the mother's spirit than a series of encounters, some random, others desired, some achievements made, and some thwarted. In one tremendous scene in a valley meadow aswarm with snowy spores, one of the mother's brothers brutally expresses his disinterest in her unexpected reincarnation. It is a cutting attitude in a film which purposefully withholds the sentimental side of its story in favor of a more troubled—and lurching—reunions.
It is a ghost story of waypoints both vivid—the search for lost goats discovers them standing in a tree!—and, for me, inscrutable: the goats first appear in some kind of horrible local ritual pinning a live goat to the ground with a knife. Underlining the haunted feeling of unsettled spirits, the film is hindered by the dour and impassive performances by the father and son, who each tread through the film eyes down, bodies stiff: pitiable, miserable souls the both. Nevertheless, Life After Life's for such a sparse production communicates a phantasmagorical sensation and ambitious visual expanse which makes me excited to see what its filmmaker has next in store for us.