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A luxury cruise boat motors up the Yangtze - navigating the mythic waterway known in China simply as "The River." The Yangtze is about to be transformed by the biggest hydroelectric dam in history. At the river's edge - a young woman says goodbye to her family as the floodwaters rise towards their small homestead. The Three Gorges Dam - contested symbol of the Chinese economic miracle - provides the epic backdrop for Up the Yangtze, a dramatic feature documentary on life inside modern China. Written by
National Film Board of Canada
Canadian filmmaker Yung Chang's National Film Board of Canada-sponsored documentary about the displacement of the Yangtze river and the population surrounding it by the Three Gorges Dam in China creates a vivid picture of people and transitions. But it's got a tough act to follow in the films of Jia Zhang-ke, whose recent 'Still Life' goes over similar ground in a style that feels at once more sweeping and more intimate.
Chang mainly alternates between a big "luxury cruise" boat that takes North Americans and Europeans to see the river landscape before flooding changes everything, and a poor family living in an improvised riverside shack that's shabby but is in a place where there is land they can cultivate for food. In the course of the film, the family is moved up to temporary housing where they have to buy food and water and their sixteen-year-old daughter, who wanted to continue beyond middle school, struggles and makes her way up from dishwasher to dining room help on the boat. Meanwhile Chang also follows another new boat worker called "Jerry" (Chen Bu Yu) who washes out after his trial period despite being handsome and a good singer. He is accused by his supervisor of being over-confident, egotistical, and careless of others, which some Chinese think is a common byproduct of one-child families.
'Up the Yangtze' is skillfully edited by Hannele Halm to underline social contrasts . It moves seamlessly back and forth between "Cindy" (as the subsistence farmer's daughter, Shui Yu, is called for her boat job) and her family's shack. We see "Jerry" boasting, drinking and swearing at a Karaoke bar before beginning his boat job. He interacts smoothly with a couple of young European men while bartending on the boat, and performs a Chinese song for an assembled audience of the tourists on board. The workers' supervisor, "Campbell" (Ping He) gives them lots of instructions.
Symbolically, Chang's extensive coverage of life on the cruise boat among the young workers and their supervisors, who teach them how to tell tourists what they want to hear and not bring up controversial subjects, is a vision of China's desire to make nice with the western world on its upward path to being one of the leading nations. At the same time, this cruise boat story seems somehow peripheral to general Chinese life. Jia's 'Still Life,' with its haunting fiction of several different lives disrupted by the Three Gorges project, gives a more vivid sense of the turmoil and unpredictability of contemporary China and more specific detail about the shifting interface between people and the dam's ongoing displacements. The cruise boat story in 'Up the Yangtze' has its richer counterpoint in Jia's previous film, 'The World,' and he presented a portrait of several decades of contemporary Chinese history in his second feature film, the 2000 'Platform.' In 'Unknown Pleasures' (2002), Jia dramatized the marginal lives of semi-educated young people (like Cindy) who are caught in the swirl of transformation of the rural into the urban in China's vast economic cauldron.
But Chang seems to have had excellent access to each of the worlds he chooses to focus on, and particularly to the sense of humiliation and grief some people feel in the course of things. This includes Cindy, before she leaves home; a shopkeeper who was brutally relocated; and Jerry when he begins to realize that his coworkers don't like him because he's not a team player. Chang was able to film Cindy's parents explaining why they can't send her on to further schooling, and their humble visit to the boat after she's been working there a while. Jerry seems to have characteristics that would serve him well in a western setting or a school. But though he comes from a richer family than Cindy, such opportunities are unreachable even at nineteen, and when he's banished from the river boat job, one wonders if he may end up like the young lost souls in Jia's 'Unknown Pleasures,' who face jail or worse.
In 'Still Life' it's clear that people at all levels are being churned around in China, and since English is Chang's first language, it's quite possible "Up the Yangtze" is meant to evoke the words "up the river." It seems that the only value that survives is the intense desire to work and no one can really see the big picture, even though they may supervise the construction of big bridges or buildings. The recent earthquake in China is a new demonstration that planning and construction are often faulty. Since Chang's film is a documentary, you may wonder why nobody is asked whether there wouldn't have been an alternative to the giant dam with its disruption of a vast eco-system and displacement of two million people and counting. But nobody does, and Chang's access doesn't mean he could talk to policy-makers, or even mid-level bureaucrats. Like many documentarians, he has worked very well with the material that came his way. He also refers to his own family stories and trips to the area of the river--this isn't his first. The film has a strong but not obtrusive soundtrack by Olivier Alary; the cinematography of Wang Shi Qing is often striking. Jia's 'Still Life' remains a hard act to follow.
Shown at Sundance, Seattle, San Francisco and other festivals, currently (June 2008) in US release in 6 theaters.
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