The idea for Up the Yangtze was born in 2002, when I went on one of the so-called Farewell cruises along the Yangtze with my parents and grandfather. The aim of the Farewell cruise is to offer tourists the chance to visit the area before it is flooded by the Three Gorges Dam. It’s very surreal. Traveling from Canada to China was in itself an emotional experience. We got off this 13-hour flight to Beijing and then took a flight to Chongqing — the largest municipality in the world. They call it the new Hong Kong. It’s where the cruise begins.
The whole sensory experience was overwhelming. The moment you get off the bus, you’re surrounded by coolies carrying these heavy loads — tourists’ luggage. So I got this idea of making a movie about tourists on this Yangtze cruise boat — a kind of ‘Gosford Park’ idea that shows the social hierarchy, the lives above and below the decks. 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 an apocalyptic journey — something out of Heart of Darkness. It’s a strange landscape of chaos and decay — like the photos of Edward Burtynsky. It’s very ghostlike along the river — hazy and grey and difficult to see long distances. Then we visited the Ghost City itself — Fengdu — famous in Chinese mythology as the site of the Gates of Hell. In my mind, the Three Gorges Dam became the Gates of Hell. There were so many metaphorical layers to explore, so I just went with this idea of a surreal journey up the Yangtze.
Being Chinese Canadian — I grew up hearing my grandfather’s stories of the old China — was also one of my motivations. 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.