Director Yung Chang’s feature debut Up the Yangtze is a rarity—a film that portrays a vastly complex reality made immediate and personal through an artist’s sensibility.
The subject—the damming of the Yangtze River to build the Three Gorges hydroelectric project—is mind-boggling in its scale. The reservoir, holding enough water to slightly slow the rotation of the Earth, submerged an area that had been civilised for more than 5,000 years, forcing four million people to leave their homes.
Chang, a first-generation Chinese-Canadian who had taken a family boat cruise on the same river, made this monumental story intimate. A former student of the Meisner acting method, he cast his documentary as if it were a drama. He decided that his protagonist would be a worker on a tourist boat whose family home was going to be submerged. Travelling with employment recruiters for cruises, Chang found his star, Yu Shui, a 16-year-old middle-school graduate whose illiterate parents farmed illegally on the river’s edge, living in a hovel where children played among the chickens on their dirt-and-stone floor.
No simple observer, Chang developed a relationship with the family and used his dramatic training, waiting and listening for emotionally revealing moments. People cry in Chang’s film, openly and intensely.
Soon, we are with Yu Shui onboard the multi-level cruise ship, Victoria Queen. She is renamed “Cindy” and put to work in the kitchens, where it’s her turn to cry. Homesick and exhausted, she struggles to learn personal hygiene and how to address foreign customers: Remember not to tell tourists they look old, fat or pale!
Though Chang doesn’t stint on pathos or viewer-friendly humour, they aren’t ends in themselves, but part of a pattern of dramatic contrasts. The neo-realistic scenes of the family’s river shanty seen early in the film give way to the neon-lit towers of Chongqing, a city of 30 million people. In the upstairs-downstairs world of the cruise boat, the aging tourists get dressed up in costumes of ancient Chinese royalty, while the young Chinese crew spends their shore time in shopping malls wearing Western-style clothes. Down below deck, the shy country mouse “Cindy” meets her opposite in another crewmember, “Jerry” (Chen Bo Yu), a cocky 19-year-old hustler, who sees himself as the face of the new free-market China.
While the story focuses on just seven characters, cinematographer Wang Shi Qing finds potent visual metaphors for the larger social and historical forces carrying the characters forward: The vast walls of the dam rise up like the sides of a dungeon; ants swarm on a piece of floating wood, like tourists at a buffet. In Up the Yangtze, Chang evokes surprising reservoirs of compassion for characters swept into history by yet another of China’s great leaps forward.
Rent Up the Yangtze below: