Up The Yangtze

Up The Yangtze


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

The Three Gorges Dam project continues to resonate with Chinese filmmakers. But Canadian-based helmer Yung Chang, takes his camera even further under the skin of a nation experiencing the massive social upheaval the flooding of the Yangtze brings in this compelling documentary, than Jia Zhang-Ke’s recently released fiction/fact crossover drama, Still Life.

The Three Gorges Dam is arguably the greatest engineering undertaking since the Great Wall Of China and the construction of the gargantuan dam means that, as the Yangtze river basin floods, life will change irrevocably for many. As the narrator at the beginning of the film says: “Imagine the Grand Canyon being turned into a great lake.”

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The flooding itself even became big business, with Farewell cruises offering ex-pats and tourists a last chance to navigate the area before it is lost beneath the rising waters. It is one of the cruise ships that provides much the backdrop for Chang’s inspection of this realisation of the “Chinese dream”, which has seen as many as two million people relocated.

His camera focuses on two youngsters from very different social backgrounds, who find themselves working on the cruise ship, and carefully unpicks the implications of the dam for them and their families.

One, Yu Shui, is the eldest of three children of a farmer who ekes out a living on the banks of the Yangtze. Although her personal aspirations are to continue with her education, economic implications for the family – not least the threat of the loss of their livelihood due to the rising river – mean that she must sign up to staff the cruise boats.

On the flip side of the coin is Chen Bo Yu. From an urban, middle-class background he is part of a generation know as “little emperors” in China – a, some would say, spoilt product of Chinese single-child family policy. Although his family, too, are being displaced as a result of the rise of the Yangtze, he sees his work on the ship in purely monetary terms.

The cruise ship itself has a strange, archaic unreality and strictly fierce hierarchy as both youngsters are given westernised names – Cindy and Jerry – for the benefit of a clientele who are treated to throwback entertainment, such as a cabaret singer telling them “It’s so easy to learn Chinesey” and who are taken on tours of, one suspects, carefully selected homes of the ‘relocated’. The staff, meanwhile, are given strict instructions: “Avoid the subject of Northern Ireland, royalty or politics”.

Chang’s sensitive observational style allows the contrast between the unreality of the ship and the crushing hardship of the lives of Yu Shui’s family to develop naturally. His camera is an unobtrusive presence in the home of the Yu family and on the ship, with all his subjects seemingly at ease with it. This means their comments come across as unguarded and the youngsters’ actions never feels staged or false.

As Westerners are being sold one idea by the Chinese government, the reality of Yu Shui’s family’s predicament, presumably echoed by many like them, is all too evident. Where once they depended on the river for their livelihood, now it threatens not only their food source but the end of their lives as they now them. Relocating to a town is one thing, but finding a trade when you are traditionally a farmer and have no literacy skills is quite another. But the Chinese viewpoint is that the sacrifice of a few must be made for the benefit of many.

It’s true, this is a picture of a nation on the verge - but whether it is the verge of great things or a mass nervous breakdown is open to interpretation. Chang’s documentary is a strong, thought-provoking and melancholy voice in the debate.

Reviewed on: 12 Feb 2008
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Up The Yangtze packshot
Documentary about the humanitarian impact of the Three Gorges Dam project.
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Director: Yung Chang

Writer: Yung Chang

Starring: Jerry Chen Bo Yu, Cindy Yu Shui, the Yu Shui family

Year: 2007

Runtime: 93 minutes

Country: Canada

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