Artistic and authentic, this multi-layered drama traces a voyage across China's great Yangtze River centres around Gao Chun (Qin Hao), the moody captain of a rusty hulk who has been given the job of steering a clandestine cargo upriver from Shanghai to somewhere beyond the Three Gorges. His readings from a book of poems he finds on board, apparently written by a former crew member, break Chun’s 10-day journey into loose chapters, or cantos. Spending more time onshore in search of love than a captain rightly should, Chun seeks a rendezvous with the same elusive woman, An Lu (Xin Zhilei) over and over.
Chun inherited the job he seems to have little aptitude for from his recently deceased father, whose soul, we are told, will be at peace once a black fish his son has caught, put in a net and strung from the gunwale, finally dies. Chun is accompanied on the journey by wizened old Uncle Xiang (Jiang Hualin) and another younger family member, Wu Sheng (Wu Lipeng), but the trio only very rarely speak to each other..
In Jiangyin, on day two of the journey, Chun cuts a deal with a sharp-suited Mafioso businessman, Luo Ding (Tan Kai), to ferry a cargo of fish upriver possibly carrying illegal goods.
Dashing in his city clothes, every inch not the riverboat captain, Chun has already spied the mysterious An in a houseboat moored on the wide Shanghai stretch of the river. The city is a distant, smoggy vision; the river a sea crowded with ferries, cargo ships and tankers that advance menacingly to the low growl of their engines.
In Jiangyin, where An works, it seems, as a prostitute, she and Chun have their first sexual encounter. Locations of further upstream meetings include Tongling, a semi-abandoned island submerged in the floods of 1998, and an ancient Buddhist temple, an echo chamber of dark passages where he hears her pose existential questions to a bored monk. What will the future hold in store for Chun? How will his journey unfold?
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