Watching Up the Yangtze is one of those experiences that reinvigorates and restores your faith in the documentary film medium. Full of stunning images of contemporary China, it shows us the unsettling pace at which the nation’s cultures are shifting and the manner in which the country’s newfound economic superpower house status is bulldozing all other concerns.
Written and directed by Montreal-based Concordia film school grad Yung Chang, this NFB/ EyeSteelFilm co-production takes us on a feature- length journey through the personal upheaval brought to one young woman’s family. Yu Shui lives along the Yangtze River with her poor family, but this is all about to change. The Three Gorges Dam—touted by Chinese authorities as symbolic of the nation’s burgeoning growth and new prosperity—has meant that the Yangtze is rising. Over two million people will have to be relocated and Shui’s family is among them.
Oddly enough, Chang says his inspiration wasn’t political. He decided to make the movie in 2002 when the Canadian-born son of Chinese immigrants visited China and took a boat cruise up the Yangtze. There, he saw the rather surreal tourist-meets-tour-guide culture of the boat line, which included full-costume photo-taking sessions and karaoke. “I came before the flooding had begun,” Chang recalls. “It was just beautiful. The sensation of being there, of seeing the landscape, and then having this surreal boat cruise, it made me think there was a film here, for sure.”
Chang approached Montreal filmmaker Daniel Cross with the idea. Cross has directed and produced documentaries that tackled homelessness (The Street and S.P.I.T.) and youth subcultures among other issues. “Daniel had been my instructor at Concordia the first year he taught in the film school there,” says Chang. “Daniel is incredibly smart and knows how to get things done. I’d always been impressed with his films, and wanted to work with someone I could trust.
I’m not really much of a businessman. It was great to work with someone who knows the ropes as well as Daniel does.”
The ball began rolling in terms of getting a network of funding backers, and Chang continued his research. He learned that the boat cruises were rapidly expanding and that the tourist industry was something the Chinese government was busy fostering as another channel for economic growth. Young Chinese were being interviewed, hired and groomed to deal with the swelling numbers of Western tourists. Chang felt he had his narrative thread, choosing to sit in on some interview sessions and then follow a couple of the youthful Chinese through their new job training.
The boat tour itself becomes but one of many symbols the film illuminates. Without ever being heavy-handed, Up the Yangtze shows us a country in the midst of an epic upheaval. “The dam has led to huge changes in the country,” says Chang. “The Chinese government has now admitted that there may well be a catastrophe caused by such a huge dam. It’s already had massive environmental impact: a species of freshwater dolphin, the Baiji, has gone extinct due to the dramatic environmental change and pollution in the water. Further, the dam will create a reservoir the size of Lake Superior. And some have suggested the change will be so significant it will lead to the earth’s axis shifting slightly. That’s how extreme this is.”
Amid the various shots of encroaching water, we meet Shui, a delightful young woman who is not ready to be separated from her peasant family. In the tradition of cinéma vérité, Chang’s camera lingers over poetic detail; the family pet, a tiny kitten, becomes a supporting character in the story. Shui’s overworked parents have clearly led a very simple life in an embankment hut but they must relocate as their daughter heads off to her new cruise-line gig. Her new job washing dishes and learning to be polite to Westerners isn’t a lot of fun. We see her break down at the sheer combined emotional stress of being away from the folks and the dreariness of her new life.
Never maudlin, Up the Yangtze is a perfect balance of personal impressions, gorgeous cinematography and frank interviews about what is happening to the Chinese people. “I think it’s probably a mixture of two primary influences,” Chang explains. “The documentaries of the Maysles Brothers and the films of Werner Herzog. Which is a funny combination, because Herzog hates direct cinema.” For the record, Chang is also a big fan of the work of Ross McElwee.
Water rising, Chang cuts to images of the tourists and one particularly hilarious sequence where the young Chinese are told what not to say to tourists. “Whatever you do,” they’re told sternly, “don’t compare America with Canada when talking to American tourists.” Additional things on the list of what not to say include: no talk of Quebec independence; no discussion of monarchies or royalties; don’t call anyone pale, old or fat.
Up the Yangtze is personal and political; the contrasting shots of a feudal society and a brave new capitalist China touch on the surreal. “At times this film felt like a cross between The Love Boat and Apocalypse Now.”
There is certainly a good deal of condemnation in Up the Yangtze, but Chang says he simply did what many Chinese filmmakers are already doing: shoot under the radar. “You don’t get permission to do a film like this. The cruise ship was an access point. If anyone asked, we tended to make it seem like we were doing a promo video for them. But so many tourists now have video cameras, it’s easier to go by unnoticed.”
Shui’s plight is contrasted with that of another cruise ship employee, Chen Bo Yu, who hails from a much wealthier family and who serves as a strong example of Little Emperor Syndrome —as an only child (the national standard by law), he is quite spoiled and self- absorbed. It also means that taking on a job on board a cruise ship proves too subservient for the lad.
Arguably, Chang’s greatest achievement is the subtlety in the filmmaking. There are no cheap shots at the tourists (“They are easy prey,” Chang notes), no slamming of any of the characters, not even the manager who trains the cruise ship employees. Instead, Up the Yangtze is a complex portrait of a nation and its people facing profound change in a very small amount of time.
Indeed, one of the toughest parts came with shaving away at the film’s longer rough cuts and finding focus in what has essentially become a two- character movie. Yu Shui and Chen Bo Yu weren’t the only interesting people that Chang encountered. “There was an elderly woman who owned a farm and didn’t want to move. There was the cruise line tour guide, who had worked as a porter to make his way through university. These were fascinating characters,” admits Chang, “but much of their stories had to be edited out.”
“Being of Chinese descent helped me to make this film,” says Chang. “I was able to go back and look at China through Western eyes, but I was able to be invisible. If I’d been white, I think this would have been a very different film.”
Chang did struggle with how to conclude Up the Yangtze. There’s great change in China, as the juggernaut that is the national economy takes off. But the accompanying changes are often devastating. He found his crowning image one night in a club in China. “It was called ‘The Gentile.’ I think they meant to call it ‘Gentleman,’ but they got it wrong.There was this little six-year-old girl who was dancing so energetically on top of a speaker to loud music and lights all around her. She was having a great time —but the image of her being immersed in another culture stuck with me.” Luckily, Chang had a cell phone he’d purchased on the black market in China, one that had a camera. He captured the little girl dancing to a George Michael song.
“She embodied something that was hard to put into words. To me, this little girl, so caught up in the lights and music, was the future of China.”