J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Mark Lee Ping-Bing at MoMA: Crosscurrent

The Yangtze is the river of rivers. It probably facilitates more commercial traffic than the Mississippi and definitely carries more ancient baggage than the Nile. Gao Chun also has his share of both. His slightly dubious delivery up-river will take a massively allegorical turn in Yang Chao’s beautiful but obscure Crosscurrent (trailer here), which had its American premiere as the opening night film of Luminosity, MoMA’s retrospective tribute to cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-Bing.

They say sailors have girl in every port, but Chun has the same mysterious woman at every stop along the way from Shanghai to Yibin. He has inherited his captaincy from his late father as well as the shadowy client, whose undisclosed cargo Chun is delivering. In accordance with tradition, he also carrying a black carp, whose death should signal the end of Chun’s morning period. However, he will get understandably sidetracked by An Lu.

Sometime she appears as a prostitute. Other times she is a Buddhist Stylite of sorts. Yet it is always unmistakably her—and their connection remains highly potent. Guided by a mysterious book of poetry discovered on-board his inherited river barge, Chun seeks out further encounters, at the expense of his time table.

Evidently, Gao Chun and An Lu are traveling up and down different temporal streams of the same river. That means she is getting younger as he is getting older. Fortunately, the narrator pretty much tells the audience this straight out, because you would not glean it from looking at the actors.

Lee won the Silver Bear at this year’s Berlinale for his cinematography—and it is pretty clear why. Visually, Crosscurrent is a masterwork of light and color. He frames some awe-inspiring river vistas, yet also gives the film an indescribably uncanny look. However, Yang’s maddeningly diffuse screenplay is not likely to rack up a lot of awards. Granted, Crosscurrent is supposed to be meditative, but at times it is better described as slack.

Still, there is a there in there, somewhere under all crushing symbolism. Nor can you fault Yang’s ambition, when he stages a struggle between the sacred and the profane, which culminates on the Tibetan Plateau. The symbolism is heavy, but rather spot-on when the massive Three Gorges Dam becomes the man-made behemoth that cleaves the two lovers apart. Despite Yang’s unsubtle portents and Lee’s overwhelming visuals, Qin Hao and Xin Zhilei develop some smolderingly mysterious chemistry together. Most folks would also take detours to renew their acquaintance.

You should realize what you are getting into when the cinematographer absolves the audience before the screening starts in the event they might nod off. You also have to give credit to Lee for being a reasonable sort of chap. Yet, despite issues of pace and pretension, you really feel like you have been on an odyssey by the time Crosscurrent finishes. It is somewhat akin to Bi Gan’s Kaili Blues, but lusher and more archetypal. Regardless, anyone who values the art and craft of filmmaking will appreciate an eyeful of Lee’s work here. Sort of recommended for hardcore cineastes, Crosscurrent is sure to have significant festival play, following its American premiere kicking off Luminosity, the Mark Lee Ping-Bing retrospective now underway at MoMA.

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