Up the Yangtze

Written by:
Emily S. Mendel
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Yung Chang, writer, director and occasional narrator of the fascinating and moving documentary, Up the Yangtze, is a first generation Canadian of Chinese descent. Like many children of immigrants, Yung Chang has spent extended periods in the “old country.”

In 2002, Yung Chang, his parents and grandparents took a “farewell cruise” along the Yangtze. These cruises offer first-world tourists the chance to visit the once beautiful area before it is completely flooded by the controversial eco-disaster, the Three Gorges Dam.

Up the Yangtze follows two local teenagers who are grateful to get work on one of the farewell cruise ships, despite the damage the dam is causing to their families. Yung Chang has described the film as “…a kind of Gosford Park idea that shows the social hierarchy, the lives above and below the decks.”

The interaction between the Western cruise ship passengers and the Chinese crew is both amusing and worrisome. The cruise manager creates a long list of banned subjects for the Chinese crew: royalty, Northern Ireland, Quebec, politics, and forbidden words such as “old”, “pale” and “fat”. The passengers on the other hand have little knowledge or interest in the culture of China and do not look beyond Chinese government propaganda to see the hardships the dam is creating.

One of the two crew members, Yu Shui (her name is anglicized to “Cindy” by the cruise ship manager) comes from a poverty-stricken peasant family who lived on the banks of the Yangtze near Fengdu—the Ghost City, appropriately known as the mythological Gates of Hell. The pitiable circumstances in which the family lives and the back-breaking work they perform to survive are hauntingly portrayed.

Yu Shui is quiet and shy. Her character is subtly revealed through her expressions and body language. As she becomes accustomed to her new life, she grows and changes.

Chen Bo Yu (“Jerry”), on the other hand, is the pampered single son of a middleclass family in the small city of Kai Xian, which is located off a tributary of the Yangtze. Tall, good-looking, English-speaking, spoiled and brash, Chen Bo Yu embodies China’s new neon version of capitalism—warts and all.

In personalizing Mao’s gargantuan Three Gorges Dam project by focusing upon two young people, Yung Chang enables us to connect emotionally with the overwhelming human tragedy of the millions whose homes and livelihoods have been snatched out from under them.

Every dramatic and poignant aspect of the award-winning Up the Yangtze, the cacophonous creaking of the ship as it leaves the dock, the haunting original music, the long silences, and the stunning photography (including a “real-time time lapse” in which six weeks of rising river water is blended into one serene minute-long shot), articulate Yung Chang’s complex East/West vision of China and the Three Gorges Dam. Up the Yangtze is a film that stays with you.

Up the Yangtze opens with this from Confucius: “By three methods we may learn wisdom: first, by reflection which is noblest; second, by imitation which is easiest; and third, by experience which is the bitterest.”

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