Up The Yangtze (2007, Director: Yung Chang): Set against the ongoing development of the Three Gorges Dam, Up The Yangtze is an intimate film about the momentous forces changing modern China. Director Yung Chang, born near Toronto and now a Montreal native, travelled to China in 2002 with his grandfather, who wanted to show him the great river he’d been telling stories about for years. They took one of the “Farewell” cruises which are designed to show tourists the landscape before it is flooded by the dam project. After this surreal experience, Chang knew he had to make a film. Though there are some hints of the film about tourism that he originally envisioned, he wisely focuses on the people being directly affected by this enormous public works project. China itself sometimes seems to be one giant construction site, and the growth of cities has led to an ever-growing hunger for the electricity to power them. Though damming the Yangtze was a dream originated by Mao, it wasn’t until the late 1990s when the project began to come to fruition. The result has been a massive forced relocation of more than two million people, as the rising water levels flood many villages.
Chang found the subjects of the film during the regular recruiting sessions held by the cruise line. Chen Bo Yu is quickly christened “Jerry” for his interactions with Western tourists. He’s 19 and an only child of rather well-off parents. Typical of the sons of China’s one-child policy, he’s a “little emperor”, arrogant and self-centered, used to getting his way. He takes the job in order to make as much money as possible, and at one point boasts that he’s making more than his parents. But he doesn’t survive the three-month probation, possibly as a result of an allegation that he shook down some tourists for “personal tips”.
Yu Shui, on the other hand, needs this job desperately, to support her family. Although only just out of middle school, her subsistence farmer parents can’t afford the fees to send her to high school, and suggest she get a job. They’re also keenly aware that their ramshackle hut by the river, with its vegetable garden, will soon be swallowed up and they’ll have to find paying work. Quickly dubbed “Cindy” by her employers, she struggles to overcome her shyness and the obvious class differences between her and the other employees. Her English skills aren’t as well-developed as her employers would like, so she starts her working life washing dishes in the kitchen. For someone whose ambition is to attend university and become a scientist, this humiliation, along with her homesickness, is difficult to take. But she makes a few friends along with her salary, and soon we wonder if she’ll return home at all.
Her parents had agonized about sending her off to work, and are clearly uncomfortable having to exploit her in this way. But her father also wants her to see the world, even if that just means the rest of the river, and at their first reunion, her parents’ pride is evident. But so is Yu Shui’s embarrassment. Part of it is the typical teenager’s feelings about her parents, but it’s also clear that she’s different from the other young people working on the ship. When her boss invites them aboard for a tour, it’s almost excruciating to watch. But you also get the feeling that she’s going to be ok in this new future, while her parents will continue to struggle.
It’s clear that China’s renewal is unstoppable, but that it is also proceeding without much pity for the rural population. In one scene, a shop owner tearfully pours out a tale of beatings and forced relocation as a statue of Mao sits benignly behind him. I wonder what Mao would think about a country still officially committed to Communism rolling over the very people it professes to revere. There is a time-lapse scene near the end of the film where we watch the rising water claim Yu Shui’s family’s beloved riverbank shack, and it wordlessly drives home the utter indifference of “progress” to the most vulnerable people caught up in it. Much like Jennifer Baichwal’s film Manufactured Landscapes (and the Edward Burtynsky photographs it is based upon), Up The Yangtze is a historical document of a time and place that will not exist for long.
UPDATE: The film opens theatrically in Toronto on Friday February 8 at the Cumberland cinema. I suggest you catch it on the opening weekend since there’s no guarantee how long the run will last. Seeing it on a big screen really does make a difference.