POV: What drew you to make Up the Yangtze?
Yung Chang: I went on a Yangtze farewell cruise as a tourist in 2002 with my parents and my grandfather, and I’ll never forget the moment when we arrived in Chongqing, the largest municipality in the world. We arrived at night and it was lit up in neon lights. The porters grabbed our luggage and carried them down the embankment to the waiting cruise ship. As we approached that cruise ship, a marching band suddenly appeared out of nowhere and started to play “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” which is a very classic American song. Hearing “Yankee Doodle Dandy” in contrast with this surreal, science-fiction city in the middle of China was one of the inspirations for the film. Also, when I got on the boat, I got to know some of the crew workers, including a bartender named Willy. Willy told me that his grandmother would rather be drowned by the inundating floodwaters than have to move and leave her ancestral home. The contrast between the surrealism of the marching band and the realism of the migrant story was my inspiration to work on a film about the Yangtze River.
Tell us about your two main characters: “Cindy” Yu Shui, and “Jerry” Chen Bo Yu. How did you find them? And what are their stories?
I found Yu Shui during the recruitment process for the cruise ship. When the
cruise managers look for new employees, they go to all the local river towns and canvas at the high schools and universities. Many children sign up for an interview, and I just happened to be along for one of those trips, which was like a natural casting process. Yu Shui and Jerry signed up as well as a handful of others I followed who didn’t make it into the final film.
Yu Shui was a very shy girl from peasant family, and her family is an extreme example of poverty in China. She doesn’t have the opportunity to continue with her high school education and has to work on the cruise boat to help support the rest of her family. Her father and mother are both subsistence farmers on the banks of the Yangtze River, and she has a younger brother and a younger sister who are attending elementary school. The family is pretty strapped for money, and they have no choice but to send her to work on the boat. Also, as subsistence farmers, their home and farmland are going to be flooded by the Three Gorges Dam, and there’s no backup plan for when this happens. So that’s another reason why Yu Shui has to go work on this boat.
In stark contrast to Yu Shui’s peasant background, her family and her struggle to climb up that economic ladder, Jerry Chen Bo Yu comes from a very middle-class background. He’s arrogant, cocky — the antithesis of what Yu Shui represents in this film. He is a very experienced capitalist, and he, too, works on the cruise boat.
As you said, Yu Shui’s family is moving through a treacherous and difficult time, and they didn’t have a backup plan. Did you feel a desire to help them in any way? What was your role as a documentary filmmaker watching this process?
My role as a documentary filmmaker in making this film was to work with the subjects on an eye-to-eye level. It was very, very important to me to feel that I was not exploiting them. This film was essentially directed by the lives of the subjects whom I was filming. I think it is a filmmaker’s responsibility to maintain a long-term relationship with the subjects and to build up a level of trust to get an intimacy and the kind of emotional outpouring that was captured in the film. To this day, I’m still in touch with the family, and Yu Shui and her family call me her big brother.
POV: Have they seen the film?
They have. When I finished the film in the summer of 2007, the first thing I did was to bring it back to China and show it to all the participants. You can imagine how emotional it was for Yu Shui to see herself depicted in a documentary film. I asked her to write about her feelings on the film to me an email, and a couple weeks later she wrote and said that through the film, she was able to see her fate and her destiny, and as a result she decided to leave the cruise boat and go back to high school. Since then, our production company has helped her pay for her high school education, and we’ve started a fund through our website to give back to her family.
Did you go through any kind of process to seek approval in China for making this film?
We didn’t seek permission to film: that’s a very bureaucratic process. I worked with a Chinese documentary film crew, and we took the line that a lot of documentary filmmakers in China do, which was simply not to get permission to make the movie. In fact it’s much easier to avoid that and churn out your film under the radar. I think the fact that I’m Chinese Canadian and I was working with a Chinese film crew really helped me shoot the film without any sort of authority or censorship. It was actually eye-opening to realize how easy it was to shoot the film. I began shooting the film with a kind of paranoia involved with shooting clandestinely in a country, but after awhile, I realized that China wasn’t the sort of totalitarian, oppressive country that many people seem to think it is. It was quite the opposite. We would arrive in towns and villages, pull out our camera and people would come up, talk to us and tell us their stories because they thought we were from the local TV station.
POV: What was the hardest part about making this movie?
There are a lot of different layers in the process of making a film, and there’s a lot of challenges. One of the hard things about making the movie was my being Chinese Canadian, and being sort of an outsider and also sort of not an outsider. So working within the Chinese world and working with a Chinese crew was a large challenge. In the beginning, my crew wanted to know why I wanted to make a film about a peasant family; in their eyes it seemed like it would be a negative portrayal. But over the course of shooting the film, they began to realize the value of making a movie about peasants, or about people who fall through the cracks in the name of progress, and they realized it was important to see that perspective in order to see the future of China. So that was a debate that I would have with my crew and I learned from it. In fact, it helped me make my movie.
Can you give us a little more background on the Three Gorges Dam?
Chang: The Three Gorges Dam is the largest hydroelectric dam in the world. It’s going to be 6 kilometers wide, and the height will be about 185 meters, or a 21-story building. The weight of the water created by the reservoir is going to be so heavy it may tilt the earth on its rotational axis by a slight degree. The reservoir will comprise an area the size of Lake Superior. Where the reservoir is being made, the Chinese had estimated that roughly 2 million people would have to be moved because of flooding. But I think as of September 2007, that number had changed dramatically. In fact, it has doubled because the government is now recognizing that there could be a potential catastrophe in the region, and so they may have to relocate an additional 2 million people, for a total of 4 million people relocated.
China has a booming economy, and an increasingly large middle class. Tell us about how Up the Yangtze relates to the bigger picture of China’s modernization and development.
I think Up the Yangtze relates to the bigger picture in many ways, and I was hoping to use this surreal luxury cruise boat that travels up and down the Yangtze River as a sort of microcosm to explore bigger issues. On this boat, you have western tourists from around the world who come to wave goodbye to the disappearing landscape above deck, and below there are crew workers who are mostly from families who live along the Yangtze River. In a way, I was exploring a miniature version of contemporary China, where successful Chinese are already standing side by side with the western tourists, while below deck the Chinese workers are trying to climb up that ladder.
For me, the cruise was a metaphor to explore what was happening in China, especially since the Yangtze River is considered the hotbed of Chinese civilization, the center of the world and the lifeline of China, and we were headed towards the Three Gorges Dam, which for me, is a symbol of China’s modernization. It was the perfect landscape in which to zoom in and focus on the lives of people who are directly affected by the dam.
POV: What is the net effect of the Three Gorges Dam overall? Do you think what’s happening is a good thing?
Overall, my opinion of mega-dam projects around the world is slightly on the negative side. I don’t think there are major benefits coming out of mega dam projects, and the social and environmental issues that occur over a greater amount of time as a result of these projects outweigh the benefits. It’s already happening in the Yangtze River region — you see it happening to Yu Shui’s family. So I think there’s plenty of pros and cons, but in my opinion, I think mega-dam projects around the world are a negative thing.