December 18, 2008

Up the Yangtze


Reviewer: Jeffrey M. Anderson
Rating (out of 5): ****½

The documentary Up the Yangtze is a perfect companion piece to Jia Zhang-ke's Still Life. They both deal in certain ways with China's humongous, controversial Three Gorges project, although neither film ever goes into detail as to what the project is supposed to accomplish (presumably it will bring a huge amount of hydro-electrical power to China). Meanwhile, there will be lots of flooding and some two million people will be displaced. Still Life tells the story of two people -- who never meet -- who turn up in one of the riverside towns to locate loved ones. Up the Yangtze likewise focuses on a smaller story, rather than the uncertain, unwieldy larger story of the dam itself and China's future. The film was made by an outsider, Canadian filmmaker Yung Chang, who becomes a fly on the wall and observes two young people, the sixteen year-old "Cindy" Shui Yu and the nineteen year-old "Jerry" Bo Yu Chen. They both go to work on the tourist riverboats that roam up the Yangtze River. (These are supposedly "farewell tours," so that people can see the vistas before they sink completely underwater.)

They are relentlessly trained to speak to their mostly American customers, coached on
what to say and what not to say. The arrogant, middle-class Jerry clearly loves money; he easily banters with his customers, eager for tips. Away from work, but for the camera, he brags about his earnings. The movie tends to keep a bit of distance from him, as if Yung Chang realized that he was not exactly audience-pleasing material. But Cindy's tale is heartbreaking. She comes from a very poor family that lives off the land near the side of the river. Forced to move because of the flooding, the family is unable to send Cindy to school. She must make money instead. On her first day of washing dishes aboard the boat, she bursts into tears.

While all this is going on, American tourists parade through the boat, making brain-dead comments about how China is more "modern" than they thought. All the while, Chinese officials are doing their best to sell the positive side of the dam, but Up the Yangtze suggests -- with a minimum of soapbox sermons -- that other sides of the story are frighteningly possible.

This is a sad film to be sure, but highly accomplished and very effective.

Zeitgeist released the 2008 DVD, with deleted scenes, powerful time-lapse footage of the actual flooding, a 2006 "research demo," and trailers.

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Posted by cphillips at December 18, 2008 10:51 AM
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