Everything in booming, Olympic-hosting China comes huge -- especially the Three Gorges Dam. Imagining the Colorado River dammed up and the Grand Canyon turned into a vast lake might give you an idea of the physical scale of the project. It might even give you a sense of what it would feel like to see one of your country's iconic landscapes being drowned in the name of progress. But, as revealed in Up the Yangtze, the new documentary airing on POV, such an imaginative exercise would hardly capture the scale of social and economic dislocation caused by the dam, especially for the peasants who have farmed the Yangtze River Valley for millennia. Nor would it capture the hope for a strong, prosperous China that Three Gorges represents for many other Chinese.
Left: Cruise boat docked in Maoping near the Three Gorges Dam.
Up the Yangtze is an epic journey up the river on one of the luxury cruise ships that feed the hunger of tourists to have a last look at the legendary valley, where even the mythical "Gates of Hell" at the Ghost City of Fengdu soon will be inundated. By focusing on the fortunes of two young people who work on the same ship -- one a poor peasant girl and the other an urban, middle-class boy -- the film reveals the river to be a symbol of the new China, where an ancient way of life disappears underwater as metropolises of mind-bending size spring up along the new shores. And where the common folk of old China are left to fend for themselves in a world being remade, literally, under their feet.
Yung Chang's Up the Yangtze is an Official Selection of the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. Beautifully filmed with sweeping vistas and intimately rendered details, Up the Yangtze captures 21st-century China in the stories of 16-year-old Yu Shui, the shy daughter of an illiterate farmer, and 19-year-old Chen Bo Yu, the city-smart, upwardly mobile youth of a "one child" family. Their stories contrast and oddly intersect on the Yangtze River.
Right: Yu Shui watches a Victoria Cruise ship pass by from the banks of the river in Old Fengdu.
Yu Shui's difficult, heart-wrenching passage up the river, which is also a passage from the past of her parents toward an unknown future, forms the moral heart of the film. The rising waters have already displaced her family once. As Up the Yangtze opens, they cling to a waste patch of land where they farm vegetables and live in an improvised hut. But this land, too, will soon disappear. Her father might then find unskilled construction labor on the homes being built for some of the "relocatees" (but not the Yu family). After that, the future looks extremely bleak.
The eldest of three siblings, Yu Shui has dreamed of pursuing her education and becoming a scientist, despite her family's poverty. Now she has an opportunity to train and compete for a permanent position on the cruise ships, making many times more than her father could ever hope to make. The job is a lifeline for the entire family -- but for Yu Shui it seems the end of her dreams for an education and the beginning of a rupture with her family and the way of life she has known.
Left: "Jerry" Chen Bo Yu in Liberty Square, Chingqing city.
Chen Bo Yu is quite a different character. The only child of a middle-class family -- a product of China's one-child policy -- he falls into the demographic of "little emperors," reputed to be spoiled and self-centered for having been only children. Chen Bo Yu is, in fact, brash, self-confident and in tune with China's rush into capitalist economics. He spends his final night before joining the cruise ship partying with friends in nightclubs, freely boasting that the cruise company hired him because "First I'm good-looking and second I'm good at English." It's a send-off achingly different from Yu Shui's tearful, angry last meal in her family's fire-lit hut.
Once on board the luxury liner, the differences in Yu Shui and Chen Bo Yu's backgrounds show in the ship's hierarchy of labor. Shy and poor at English, Yu Shui begins below decks as a dishwasher. Chen Bo Yu works above as a porter or bartender, sharply attired in a steward's uniform, interacting with the tourists, many of them Americans. Both, however, must submit to the company's strict training and evaluation regimen. Up the Yangtze provides a fascinating glimpse into the Chinese way of business, in which regimentation, self-effacement and an unabashed catering to tourist tastes and biases come without a hint of social or political problems. An easy-to-say American name is given to each employee -- Yu Shui becomes "Cindy" and Chen Bo Yu is "Jerry." This is definitely post-Mao China, which one current joke quoted in the film describes as turning right with the left turn indicator on.
Right: Yun Yang City along the Yangtze River.
In such an environment, the fast-track Chen Bo Yu would seem to be a lock for success while Yu Shui would certainly be the one to face daunting challenges. Yet in an environment where workers are instructed to find just the right level of humility (not humble enough and Americans are offended; too humble and they see you as fake), all is not as straightforward as it might seem. Chen Bo Yu runs into trouble for his overconfident attitude while Yu Shui begins to adapt to the life of a worker in the new capitalist China.
Like the river itself, this journey Up the Yangtze reveals a country undergoing an inexorable and tumultuous reshaping, in which the past is seen as being washed away while it lies just below the surface, and the unintended consequences of rapid economic and technological change chart an uneasy course toward a stronger and more prosperous China.
Behind the Lens:
"The idea for this film was born in 2002, when I went on one of the so-called Farewell cruises along the Yangtze with my parents and grandfather," says director Chang. "The whole sensory experience was so overwhelming that I wanted to document it -- a kind of 'Gosford Park' idea that shows the social hierarchy, the lives above and below the decks. And I realized that the people working on the boat were all from the Yangtze area, and that many of their families were affected by the dam. The other aspect was this sense of apocalyptic journey -- something out of Heart of Darkness. It's a strange landscape of chaos and decay.
"Being Chinese-Canadian, growing up hearing my grandfather's stories of the old China, was also one of my motivations," Chang says. "It added a personal layer to the project -- but the story I wanted to tell was a bigger one about what's happening in China now."
Up the Yangtze is an EyeSteelFilm/National Film Board of Canada production in association with American Documentary | POV, and a co-presentation with the Center for Asian American Media.