Up the Yangtze

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The night before last, as the remnants of a thunderstorm drizzled down on Bernard Street, I walked to the Outremont Theatre to see Yung Chang’s documentary Up the Yangtze for the second time. Seeing it again only confirmed that this is truly a remarkable film — and one of the best and most important foreign-made movies made about modern China.

That’s quite a statement, I know, but what makes me say that is the profoundly human way in which it approaches a truly monumental subject: the impact of the Three Gorges Dam on the people who live in the basin of the Yangtze River. Two million people have already been displaced by the dam’s flooding and another two million are expected to be moved as a result of design flaws and environmental degradation. The film focuses on one of the “farewell tours” that take tourists up the river to wave goodbye at the disappearing landscape, and it follows two teenagers, Yu Shui and Jerry—one shy, stubborn and poor, the other arrogant and middle-class—who leave home to work on one of the boats.

Yu Shui’s story is the most compelling of the two and she, more than Jerry, becomes the real focus of the film. After her family’s hometown, Fengdu, is abandoned and rebuilt across the river—the old town will soon be flooded—her family builds a shack near the water where they can grow their own food. They eat well but have no money, so instead of going to high school, Yu Shui takes a job on a farewell cruise, scrubbing dishes in the boat’s kitchen. Before making his film, Chang earned such trust from the Yu family that he was able to film some truly extraordinarily intimate family scenes.

This intimacy is what makes Up the Yangtze so powerful. Through Yu Shui, the cruise, and the landscape through which they travel—a ghost landscape that will inevitably disappear, whether the people who inhabit it are ready or not—we get a sense of the contradictions of life in present-day China. There are no pat conclusions here: this is movie that shatters illusions and revels in the complex, ambiguous reality of the situation.

In one scene, Chang and his crew interview a man who sells the furniture left behind by refugees from the flooding. He begins by justifying the Three Gorges project with canned, unconvincing rhetoric, but soon reveals that he himself was a farmer forced off his land without compensation. Unexpectedly, and unsettlingly, he begins bawling. “It’s so hard in China,” he says, shaking, tears running down his face. “Being a human is hard, but being a common person in China is even more difficult.” Meanwhile, an argument about stolen compensation money begins to rage in the street outside, and it becomes clear what devastating consequences the dam will have on the social fabric of the communities it has already displaced.

One of the more surreal images from Up the Yangtze are those of the old, abandoned city of Fengdu, perched brooding on the banks of the river. It will soon be flooded, an entire city submerged. Appropriately, but only in the most morbid of ways, Fengdu is known as the Ghost City, and its name refers to the doors of hell—the entrance to the realm of the dead—in Taoist mythology.

Yung Chang, a Montrealer, was interviewed this winter by my friend Cedric, and you can read more about his experience making Up the Yangtze on Comme les Chinois. Angry Asian Man has a good interview with Chang, too. Up the Yangtze has already finished a three-month run in Montreal, but it will be playing in select cities across the United States and Canada this summer.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Wednesday June 04 2008at 02:06 am , filed under Asia Pacific, Film, Society and Culture, Video and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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