Before The Flood

Before The Flood


Reviewed by: George Williamson

The city of Fengjie is sinking. The Three Gorges Dam project is slowly flooding the valley and in a few short months the entire city will sink beneath the muddy waters of the Yangtze river. It's a communist state, but in the last days of the thousand year old city, it's every man for himself.

This is a story of forced relocation, the flow of people from their lifelong homes to the modern city of New Fengjie - a bleak, grey place, built of concrete and steel - well above the rising waters. Lucky ones in the housing lottery will recieve a new abode, although doubtlessly one that is smaller, darker and as yet not complete, or a sum of up to 500 yuan - about £35 - for the compulsary purchase of their soon-to-be-sunken address. For the less fortunate the only thing they can hope for is to sell their old building to demolition contractors for scrap, hoping that they'll be able to get by on funds produced by foraging amongst the rubble, sleeping under polythene sheets, unwilling - or unable - to relinquish their grip on the shattered remains of the old town. The local government and housing association turn up, making them extinuguish their candles, collect their pitiful belongings and leave; the officials tell their comrades that there's nothing that they can do.

Copy picture

Before The Flood highlights problems in inland China's towns and villages around the Three Gorges Project and - from a broader perspective - the distress caused by abandoning homes and lives. Most of the people believe in the party, but feel betrayed by their local leaders, the cadres of corrupt politicians and bureaucrats who, along with the Chinese Mafia, siphon off cash and ignore the populace's lamentations and demands for fair compensation. The poverty is overwhelming and, during the course of the film, things become increasingly strained and stricken, as the affluent inhabitants flee and those remaining realise that this is the end; this will not pass them by.

Directors Yan Yu and Li Yifan observe without comment, documenting the city in various stages of human erosion. Before the resettlement begins the streets teme with workers; pairs of porters carry fish in giant bins supported on poles slung between them, winding a serpentine route from the riverside docks through the town and to the market where vendors sell every foodstuff imaginable. People furiously argue amongst themselves - at great length - about the best way to relocate and to obtain their compensation for every square metre, and overworked bureaucrats try to explain the futility of the situation to them. Within a couple of months Fengjie is a relative ghost town, the desolate silence broken only by the echoing sounds of sledgehammer gangs tearing down the last remains of the buildings.

This is a bleak and grimy vision, shot handheld and shaking - entirely befitting the subject matter - thrusting the viewer into the washed out bitterness of Fengjie. Unfortunately the film is too long and the lengthy sections devoted to meetings between Anglican Church members are often frustrating and tedious to watch, as heated arguments play out. Although necessary to fully comprehend the story, it would have been more effective had they been edited down to the essentials.

This is an important piece of cinema, a portrait of a community being dissolved and history being swept away, but its extended - and unnecessary - duration means that it's not for the casual viewer.

Reviewed on: 23 Aug 2005
Share this with others on...
Before The Flood packshot
Documentary charting the relocation of the people of Fengjie, a city that will shortly be submerged beneath the Yangtze river.

Director: Yan Yu, Li Yifan

Writer: Yan Yu, Li Yifan

Year: 2004

Runtime: 143 minutes

Country: China


EIFF 2005

Search database: