Up the Yangtze, a new documentary about the impact of the Three Gorges Dam project in China by Canadian filmmaker Yung Chang, opens in New York City at the IFC Center tomorrow. The film has won numerous awards on the festival circuit and received much critical acclaim for its moving and powerful portrayal of contemporary China by following the rise of the Yangtze River and the fates of two young people working on a luxury cruise ship on the river.
Last night, a special screening of the film was held at the Rubin Museum, which holds a small but comprehensive collection of Himalayan Art. As the lights went down in the packed theater, I couldn’t help but notice that actor Colin Firth had slipped into the row behind me! It’s not often that you see celebrities at documentary screenings, but the New York audience played it cool. No one gawked (except for me, and even then, discreetly), and Mr. Firth, I hope, was free to be carried along the Yangtze by the power of the film, just like the rest of us.
The Three Gorges Dam is a hydroelectric dam that spans the Yangtze River, the third longest river in the world. Since construction began in 1994, over a million people have been forced to relocate, and millions more are projected to lose their homes and livelihoods to the massive project. Flooding and landslides near the dam also threaten lives and homes, and last Saturday, Chinese authorities evacuated approximately 200 people living near the dam after a landslide.
Up the Yangtze provides a look at how the dam is altering the landscapes and lives of the people who live along the river. We meet the impoverished 16-year-old Yu Shui (she takes on the American name “Cindy” when she starts working on the ship) and the arrogant 19-year-old “Jerry” Chen Bo Yu — two very different teenagers who work on a luxury cruise ship that provides a “farewell tour to the Yangtze” for Western tourists. Their stories, as well as the story of the cruise, and the story of what is being lost to the dam, were beautifully shot by Chang’s Chinese crew, and are interwoven together in a film that gives both an overview of the project and close-ups of the people being affected.
This was my second time watching the film, and I loved seeing it on the big screen. Afterwards, Chang answered questions from audience members. When asked what inspired him to make the film, he talked about how he was in China with his parents and embarking on the Yangtze farewell cruise when a marching band began playing “Yankee Doodle Dandy”: “It was like The Love Boat meets Apocalypse Now,” he said. The experience spurred him to make Up the Yangtze. He was also asked about whether he had any problems filming in China (He didn’t have any problems, since he filmed without official permissions, and with a Chinese crew) and what he thought about hydroelectric dams in his native Quebec (he demurred, saying that he wasn’t an expert on the issue). Sadly, Colin Firth did not ask a question.