Up the Yangtze, Canada, 2007, directed by Yung Chang

In 2008, a year after Yung Chang released his stirring documentary Up the Yangtze, all twenty-six generators of the Three Gorges Dam were churning. At nearly 200 meters high and 2.3 kilometers wide, the hydroelectric dam in Hubei, China, is creating a reservoir that will eventually stretch 600km (370 miles) to the west. “Imagine,” Yung says near the beginning of his film, “the Grand Canyon turned into a great lake.” The project, which began in 1993 under the leadership of Chinese Premier Li Ping, cost USD $25 billion and has forced at least 1.2 million people to relocate because the swelling river has overwhelmed their homes. Up the Yangtze, primarily through the stories of two young people, Yo Shui and Chen Bo Yu, chronicles the last days before the floods began. The communities and environment in this part of China have been irrevocably changed, and for all the film’s picturesque imagery and implications about Chinese society, the gravity of its story is that it cannot be told again.

One of the chief reasons for Western audiences to watch Up the Yangtze is its intimate portrayal of the aspirations and anguish of the Chinese citizens depicted in the film. With so much glib reductionism on offer by Western commentators, it is refreshing to hear Chinese voices expressing their own hopes and frustrations. The film centers on Yu Shui, a sixteen year old girl with dark, caramel-colored skin and an attractive smile, whose family, already living in poverty, will lose its small farm and ragged house when the waters rise. In one scene, while she scrubs a scrawny, uncomfortable kitten, Yu Shui says, “My dream was to go to university and be a scientist. But now I think it’s impossible.” She will not even be able to go to high school; her parents have decided she needs to make money to support her two younger siblings as they complete their primary education.

Up the Yangtze also features Chen Bo Yu, a self-assured young man from the city who goes by the English name Jerry. Although he is less compelling than Yu Shui, Jerry’s story shows another part of modern Chinese society—namely the affluent young people trying to find their place in a country that continuously experiences profound changes. In his first appearance in Up the Yangtze, Jerry spends a final night with friends at a karaoke bar before he starts a new job on a “farewell tour,” a luxury cruise that offers wealthy travelers one last look at the old Yangtze.

“Farewell tours” set the backdrop for much of Yung Chang’s film. In an interview,1 [2] the Chinese-Canadian director says he conceived of the documentary in 2002 when he took one of these cruises with his grandfather. Both Yu Shui and Jerry have been hired to work on one of the cruise ships. For Yu Shui, the job is an economic necessity that destroys her hopes of going to high school; for Jerry, the job is a means to feed his nascent consumerism. As he tells friends at the karaoke bar before they take shots of Absolut vodka, “Whenever you have difficulties in your life, give me a shout. Soon I’ll be earning my own money. I’ll have more than you guys.”

Jerry and Yu Shui appear together for the first time about a third of the way through the film as they begin their employment. Walking up the gangplank, Jerry says, “I’m going to give you an English name. We’ll call you Cindy.” While every employee on the ship takes on an English name, this particular interaction has a special significance. Though neither of them may consciously know it, Jerry (a wealthy urbanite) has offered Yu Shui (a farmer’s daughter) entry into a burgeoning middle class inextricably linked to a globalized economy. An English name is the starting point for this potential new identity.

Up the Yangtzeis at its best in this middle passage of the film. Cindy and Jerry must adapt quickly to life on the river: with swift, but steady pacing and fantastic editing, Yung takes the audience from one moment of their story to the next. Overwhelmed by the stress of the work, Cindy breaks down at one point, but we also see that she is making friends. She becomes particularly close with one girl who takes her shopping and calls her “Little Gray Rabbit” because of her dark skin. Cindy also clearly enjoys the mandatory English lessons, where the crew learns things such as “Don’t call anybody old, pale, or fat! In English you will say ‘plump.’” Meanwhile, Jerry works primarily as a porter and receives unbelievable tips—thirty dollars, in one scene, in crisp U.S. bills. Soon he is crowing, “I earn the most … My mom only earns 1000 yuan [roughly $150] a month. My father makes about 2000 yuan. Actually less than that.” Then, finger wagging at the camera, an astonished smile spilling across his face, he declares in English, “I’m first in my family! My salary is first!” He is almost singing and begins to dance a little. “[To] make more money,” he continues in English, “is my dream.” Together, Jerry and Cindy represent the schizophrenic China of Yung Chang’s film: economic disparity and the allure of cash metastasizing beneath the shadow of an unstoppable public project created by a single-party communist government.

While the film revolves around Cindy and Jerry, Yung also tells a wider story. Shots of signs marking the river’s impending height punctuate Up the Yangtze—warnings to the surrounding communities that the Three Gorges Dam will soon be completed. First suggested in 1919 by Sun Yat-sen, China’s first provisional president, as a way to curtail devastating floods, the idea of damming the Yangtze was later championed by Chairman Mao Zedong. Mao even wrote a poem about the possibility, which Yung reads over archived footage of the leader at the beginning of the film:

A bridge will fly to span the north and south

Turn a deep chasm into a thoroughfare

Walls of stone will stand upstream to the west

To hold back Wu Shan’s clouds and rain

Till a smooth lake rises in the narrow gorges

The mountain goddess, if she is still there

Will marvel at a world so changed

The people displaced by the construction also marvel at the magnitude of the project. One old man in the film says with resignation, almost as if trying to convince himself, “Our country is really strong and prosperous now. So strong and prosperous that it can actually stop the gigantic river.”

In one of the most wrenching scenes of the film, Yung interviews an antiques vendor whose shop and home will be lost as the waters rise. His voice quavering with emotion, the shopkeeper tells of how he was beaten the first time authorities forced him to move. Outside his shop, a raucous crowd complains that while citizens of another village were given 300 yuan to resettle, they themselves were offered merely 200 yuan to uproot their lives. (200 yuan is roughly equal to Jerry’s $30 tip.) Inside, the shopkeeper loses his composure. “It’s hard being a human,” he says in tears, “but being a common person in China is even more difficult. China is too hard for common people.” This sequence of the film ends with a powerful, symbolically framed shot of the shopkeeper sitting silently in front of his wares, an oversized, marble bust of Mao dwarfing him as evening light slants through the storefront.

The essence of Up the Yangtze, however, shines through one of its final scenes, shaking the documentary back to life after several sleepy minutes. The floodwaters are imminent and Yu Shui’s family has to move. In voice over, Yung says, “Even my grandfather can’t recognize the China he once knew,” before turning his camera on Yu Shui’s father as he mounts a massive dresser on his back. Under this burden, the aging man slowly ascends a concrete embankment. Yung cuts all sounds except for the man’s labored breathing and his soft, sandaled steps on the concrete. He is, both literally and metaphorically, saving the remnants of his way of life from the coming consequences of a more modern China. Then, in a series of time-lapsed shots, the Yus’ house disappears under the flood waters.

Yu Shui is not present for her family’s move. She is on the ship in her striped uniform, washing dishes as the guests enjoy a chandelier-lit banquet. She remains the film’s most compelling character. While Jerry has money to fall back on, Yu Shui’s future is uncertain. A good student with a job on a ship designed to rake in U.S. dollars, she may be able to ride China’s boom into a prosperous life, but if the funds dry up, she could easily find herself back on the desperate margins. She is, rightly, the last face we see in Up the Yangtze. As her cruise ship pulls into the lock at Three Gorges Dam, Yu Shui lies in bed. Awake and lonely, her eyes turn toward the window and search the darkness.

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