Yangtze Story – Director Yang Chao and his film Crosscurrent

Yang Chao’s travels on the Yangtze River in 2006 inspired his latest movie. And this film Crosscurrent successfully entered the 66th Berlin Film Festival main competition finals. He directed the movie with devotion and painstaking effort. Yang says that Crosscurrent is an art-house film because of its artistic and aesthetic construction.


When interviewed, Yang Chao speaks in an intellectual, logical and methodical manner, reflecting his role as a college teacher. Although not a prolific film director, he has created many long and short films that have won awards at the International Film Festival. In 1997, his short film Run Away won the 54th Cannes International Film Festival Cinefondation Award; in 2002, his long film Passages won the Golden Camera-Special Mention at the 57th Cannes International Film Festival; he has also received the Fourth Gwangju International Film Festival Jury Prize, and the Seventh Barcelona Asian Film Festival Special Jury Prize. These achievements would not have been possible without Yang’s perseverance and relentless pursuit of artistic expression. “Every movie is relevant to my life, my thoughts and what really concerns me,” he says. “That’s where my themes come from.”

Yang’s travels on the Yangtze River in 2006 inspired his latest movie. “I have always loved the river, even when I was just a kid.” His nighttime descriptions of the Yangtze create vivid scenes, demonstrating the soft, sensual temperament behind his intellectuality. After the scriptwriting in 2009, the shooting in 2012, and the final editing in 2015, Crosscurrent was finally born, and successfully entered the 66th Berlin Film Festival main competition finals. “I was happy that it was selected,” Yang remarks. He directed the movie with devotion and painstaking effort. It tells the story of a man and a woman who meet by chance in intertwined time and space. In the double narrative, there are clues about the river and the place where they met, fell in love, lost and searched for each other – a unique picture with multiple meanings. Yang says that Crosscurrent is an art-house film because of its artistic and aesthetic construction.

The film was shot by renowned Taiwanese cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bin, whose aesthetic sense matches Yang’s, and made for smooth cooperation. Yang says, “It’s like I was learning film all over again from him.” The shooting was as poetic as the plot. Most of the scenes were shot along the river, with the crew on a rented passenger boat. As the boat moved, the travelers’ stories developed. Yang stuck to the original intention of the original screenplay, which meant great difficulties for the final editing process. A few editors participated in the tasks, but the story remained unclear. It was a difficult time for Yang. To come to a final version, he had to let go of his expectations. He believes that this movie, while challenging traditional movie-viewing habits, will offer something new. “Film is supposed to have the ability to deliver a complex, sometimes psychic message. Without this, it is doomed,” he says.

Regarding the current situation of the Chinese film market, Yang is both rational and logic, recognizing the success of many commercial films. “Only when the market is healthy can superior films be made.” He compares filmmaking to a Transformer – steel giant with a hardened surface that relies on a spiritual core of flesh and blood to come alive. Yang’s metaphor is appropriate and vivid.

“People should have the ability to love others. The least that an intellectual and a director can do is to make others better,” he says.


Q:Even though you aren’t so prolific, you won awards at the Cannes Film Festival in 2010 and 2014. What principles do you adhere to, in order to ensure success?

Yang Chao: I don’t have many products because every movie I make is related to my own life. Whether it is a short film, long film, or Crosscurrent, they all come from my thoughts and my experiences. I will only take what’s really in my life as the theme. It’s not easy to find themes; “eureka” moments don’t happen all the time.

Q:Crosscurrent was a long time in the making. How was the process of creation?

Yang ChaoI got the idea for the film in 2006 when I began to travel on the Yangtze River. My imagination gave birth to the idea of filming, but it wasn’t the official starting point of the creative process. I started to write the screenplay in 2009, and I wrote on and off for three years until I finally finished in 2011. The shooting began in 2012, but the actual creation of the film started in 2010 – nearly six years from its completion.

The reason I couldn’t finish it in 2014 or 2015 is that I encountered great difficulties in the editing process. With the help of several friends, I finally figured out what the film was supposed to be. There were several edits, and three editors have joined the work. I myself also edited. This final version was created with the help of a more open-minded, younger female editor and director, Yang Mingming. I’m basically satisfied with it.

The film’s creation, from writing the script to shooting and editing, was a new process of re-learning for me. Many ideas that I was certain of when I shot my film debut Passages were challenged. It’s of great significance to me to be able to complete such a process.


Q: What is Crosscurrent about?

Yang ChaoIt is difficult to sum up this film by ascribing a theme. It is about a river and how two lovers are separated by time and space, the love between a young girl and an older, frustrated literary failure of a man. The characters and theme are relatively new for Chinese film.

I feel that now, when the whole world is looking at China, they only see the most immediate appearance – the economy, life, and even frustration, conflict and change. Similarly, a Chinese movie is constrained by how the world looks at China; most directors are telling the story of what China appears to be in varying degrees. What makes this film unique is that it penetrates those appearances, going into the soul, spirit and even the aesthetic confidence of the Chinese people, to show their beauty, culture, and image. I hope this film can become a meaningful addition to the art-house canon.

It is difficult to describe the meaning of this film since it’s new in the field. Eventually it can be understood as a love story, but a strange one. It not only happens against the background of a river with an Eastern setting, but also tells the story of how the hero and heroine meet at different times and spaces. They seem to fall in love all over again, when actually it’s just a lengthy separation. It ends with two people separated, with one at the head and the other at the end of the Yangtze River, just like the beginning, with only their locations changed. The film is about the process whereby they keep missing each other. Since this narrative approach is relatively new, the audience may find it challenging and even obscure.

The film also presents the basic features of a river, its changes in space and time, the differences between the old and new Yangtze, and how it is affected by contemporary human life, industry, and civilization. This river is both time and space. It is one of the narrative clues of the film, exploring the results of the progress of human civilization from the space-time changes, the arrival of a new era, and an elegy to a bygone age.

Q:Why did you choose the Yangtze over of other rivers?

Yang Chao: The poet Du Fu once wrote, “The boundless forest sheds its leaves shower by shower; the endless river rolls its waves hour after hour.” All the masters have written about the Yangtze and all poets have been nourished by it. They regard it a river of time. It was where my own imagination started, and I wanted to unveil its many wonders.

I hope audiences will appreciate its charm. Understanding the film should not be purely rational. When an audience is immersed in the sounds and images of the Yangtze River through visual effects, they will gain an emotional understanding. The charm of this film is that it can offer people a new awareness of themselves.


Q:How did the shooting go?

Yang Chao:It was very interesting. Because I like the Yangtze River so much, the framing before the shooting began was very memorable for me. During the actual shooting, we rented a passenger boat and sailed from Shanghai to Yibin with all the crew living together. We started out from Shanghai on January 3, 2012 and sailed on and off all the way while shooting. We also had a props boat and a shooting boat.

Looking back, this wasn’t economical in terms of pure costs, but the process was very interesting. On the top floor of the boat there was a cafe, and the producer also opened a bar where everyone could go for a drink and a chat, or to watch a movie. We shot at the coldest time of year on the Yangtze River. To save money, the producer put the heating on at 11:00 at night and shut it off 3:00 a.m. A lot of people woke up at midnight because it was too cold. The harsh river wind was often painful; we only started to warm up when the boat passed from Hubei into Sichuan.

I encountered a lot of difficulties during the shooting process, mainly because I underestimated the complexity of shooting on water. The first shoot went from January 3 to March 7, lasting about 60 days and sailing over 2000 km. A lot of time was wasted on the transition period. Every time we wanted to re-shoot, the boat had to turn back. A shot that could be retaken quickly on land would require five to six times as long on the river, which resulted in a very short working session every day. This was due to my lack of experience; if I could do things again, it would be different. If I have more time and investment in future, I may do a final edit.


Q:Why did you choose to shoot in the winter?

Yang ChaoIt certainly wasn’t rational! It may have something to do with my early experiences. I had already accumulated some emotional inspiration and wonderful experience since shooting with my DV.

I remember the first time I took the Yangtze River ferry. Noises within the cabin subsided as everyone went to sleep late at night. I went to the deck to admire the dark view outside. It actually took me half an hour to adapt to the darkness. I was gradually able to distinguish the sky from the water as well as the contours of the land, although there was very little light at all. On the background of the distant mountains, cars headlights could occasionally be seen, twinkling for a while before disappearing. It’s a kind of darkness that is thick and beautiful, with distinguishable gradations. I was amazed that the river could still be so beautiful at night after going through so much. This early experience was very important to me, and that’s why I wanted to shoot in the winter at night.

I knew it would be very cold, but that was what I wanted. My idea was to create a sense of bleakness instead of a lively and bustling atmosphere. Actually, we rarely had the opportunity to shoot when the waves were high. We could barely see them unless it was very windy, which it rarely was.

Q: You hired Mark Lee Ping-Bin as your cinematographer. How was he to work with?

Yang ChaoMark expressed great interest in this film when I first got in touch with him. He was keen to work with me, since we share a highly consistent purpose. He was really helpful in shooting the film. He’s a big fan of traditional Chinese poetry, and we often talk about it when we spend time together. He knows a lot about traditional Chinese culture, and is single-minded in his work. He is professional and technically accurate in process photography as well. However, as a man, he is very easygoing and low-key.

We took his advice to use real film. Of course he is capable of using digital techniques, but he figured that the Yangtze River should be captured on film. It was only the re-shoots—taking up 10 %—that were not shot on film. It now seems that Crosscurrent will be the last batch of Chinese movies shot on film. Shooting with film worked very well with the contrast of light ratios inside and outside the ferry, as well as better color reflection. We didn’t feel that we needed high-definition digital, since it can create a strong sense of coldness. Scenes shot on film, in contrast, are always very warm.

Cooperation with Mark gave me an opportunity to learn from a more experienced practitioner, and allowed me to brush up on traditional culture while figuring out how to use modern storytelling methods. It’s like an inheritance. I integrated plenty of Western music with the Eastern landscape of the film. What’s more, the story itself carries a Western temperament, which Mark appreciated. He agrees that it’s an inheritance.

Q:Were you impressed with the two lead actors, Qin Hao and Xin Zhilei?

Yang ChaoQin Hao is a professional literary film actor, and is unique today. Most actors of his age work in commercial or dramatic movies. He volunteered to star in the movie as soon as he read the script. I admire his intelligence. He understands literary screenplays because he has worked with Lou Ye and Wang Xiaoshuai in the past. He has a discerning eye for quality. I can say for sure that he did a great job with “Crosscurrent”.

As for the heroine, it was hard to find the right person for the role. The target candidate needed to be hard working and dedicated, but also intrinsically brave and unique. When Xin Zhilei first came to audition, I nearly missed her. She was talking with the deputy director outside, and I met her during my tea break. She had already been rejected, but I figured I should give her a second chance. She was not so experienced, but struck me as talented, and brave enough for the role. Imagine if she hadn’t been there when I went outside for a cup of tea!


Q: The development of independent and art-house Chinese films has been fraught with difficulty. Have you encountered any financial pressure during the filmmaking process?

Yang ChaoIt’s not directing a movie or shooting an art-house film that is difficult. I’m not rich of course, but I don’t think it’s difficult to shoot an art-house film. The only source of difficulty comes from the creation itself. That is to say, being unable to find a way out, or not being powerful and smart enough, or failing to understand the technique of filmmaking profoundly – all this can lead to real problems in the creative process.

A total of five funds were provided for shooting Crosscurrent, probably overtaking similar films over the years in this regard. Initially, because our screenplay was approved, the film was included in the Cannes Film Studio Project. Later, we were given the Rotterdam Fund as well as the Southern Fund. We were also lucky to have support from a wide range of friends in the preliminary preparatory stage. The film needed to present something spectacular, so wasn’t a small investment, and financing was really tricky.

Crosscurrent should be counted as an art-house film. This kind of film is relatively rare in the Chinese movie market. Shooting art-house films is riskier than literary films because they depend more on individual creativity. It’s a case of offering audiences a brand new perspective through transforming a personal spiritual world into images.

In the process of creation, we were under pressure from investors and distributors. But everyone involved understood the risk and value of producing such a film. Both our past producer and present producer, Wang Yu, are able men. They gave me a lot of help.

Q: The editing process was lengthy. What kind of obstacles did you encounter?

Yang Chao: The final version lasts 116 minutes, which I am happy with. The fundamental reason for so many rounds of editing is that the editors and I were not confident enough. We were not sure if we could tell a story in such a way, or if the positive and negative narratives could be used simultaneously in each scene, or even if our crazy ambition could finally make its way onto the screen. Another factor is that, as a filmmaker, I always want to add more to a film. I’ve always wanted my films to cross genres, which is an unrealistic idea. So, we made detours and finally gave up on the interpretative model exclusive to genre films. Instead, we put the focus on clarifying the main plot, and thus adjusted the sequence of the screenplay.

Initially, I believed I had done a perfect job in shooting, and thus refused to change the material or the original sequence of the screenplay. I insisted that the original intention should not be altered, which was a mistake on my part. The final version of the film was finalized, to a large extent, by a young director Yang Mingming who broke my fantasy with his dauntless courage. The lesson I’ve learnt is that I should never take the structure and sequence of the screenplay too seriously. Rather, I should regard the shot materials and the existing situation as a basis for rearranging the screenplay. After I lost my arrogance, I resumed creation with the real materials, and proceeded with my original intention. The final sequence of the screenplay ended up being different to the original one.

The adjustments of the sequence, although plentiful, are not radical. Generally speaking, only 3 to 5 adjustments are required to produce a very different effect. This kind of adjustment in turn makes room for the preservation of many scenes. I originally wanted to keep the order of the voyage and attempt to present the original appearance of the Yangtze River. However, I later discovered that the cast performance and the logic of the story could not be realized that way. The result of the adjustment turned out to be positive, so I changed my perspective. Shooting an art-house film is like building a new world, which is risky. Success is not guaranteed.


Q: Crosscurrent has been shortlisted for the competition program of the 66th Berlin International Film Festival. How do you feel about the nomination?

Yang Chao: I feel very happy about being shortlisted. This at least is a recognition for the film itself. The West and Western film festivals have always wanted to see China’s reality in Chinese movies, which is difficult to live up to. I am particularly grateful to the Berlin Film Festival Selection Committee this year for having the courage to choose a brand new movie. I think this is a result of mutual understanding about the art of filmmaking. We are very pleased. Whether we win the prize depends on the quality of rival entries, and the preferences of the judges. I believe that “Crosscurrent” will be a challenge for them. Admittedly, these judges hold some fixed ideas about Chinese film and Chinese society, so it remains to be seen if the power hidden in the film can break these strongly held viewpoints.

Q: Currently, the global film industry’s eyes are firmly fixed on the Chinese film market. What is your personal evaluation of its development?

Yang Chao: First of all, I think the market has become healthier. I am a voracious movie fan who takes in all types of films, especially thrillers, and magic & fantasy movies. After the market gets back on the right track, the survival of the fittest mechanism will be gradually adopted. I have noted the success of genre films such as Goodbye Mr. Loser, Breakup Buddies and even Jian Bing Man. They have been able to satisfy audiences, maintain strong plots, and carry a spiritual message, which is quite remarkable.

There has been little room for Chinese art-house films or independent movies. Of course, audiences are not to blame. They are only likely to watch other kinds of movies until they become fed up with genre films. They are not obliged to enjoy art-house films. As for capital, it is profit-driven and therefore is not responsible either. I suppose that administrative, institutional and government cultural departments should assume responsibility for cultural inheritance and promoting the development of independent films and documentaries. The benefits brought by these films cannot be measured by commercial interests. It is their spiritual influence that counts. With this influence, quality will improve and the happiness index of the general public will rise. The government should act as a guide by preventing the capital and audiences from hurting these creators and works, and by taking a long-term perspective in considering the influence of art-house films. The government must to make room for the development of independent and art-house films.

I once came up with a metaphor to describe the core value of film industry: it’s like a Transformer – a gigantic steel robot that is powered by a real heart. This symbolizes the status quo of the film industry. At its heart is fragile human nature, and a spiritual life made of flesh and blood. Even commercial films with large-scale investments are driven and powered by it. This gigantic monster (commercial films) is ultimately supported by the heart of flesh, i.e. emotional resonance. The difficulty comes when the steel and the flesh meet. The heart of flesh will be shattered without protection. As a result, the steel giant will be reduced to scrap metal.