"Up the Yangtze" sounds vaguely obscene, as a colleague of mine noted recently about the title of a disturbing new documentary about changes along China's great river.
Honey, you have no idea.
Inspired by the controversy surrounding the ongoing construction of the Three Gorges Dam (a massive hydroelectric project forcing the relocation of 2 million people), Chinese-Canadian filmmaker Yung Chang follows two teenage employees of Farewell Cruises, a swanky riverboat catering to Western tourists eager to gawk at Old China before it's swamped by floodwater.
There's plenty for the director to focus on. Examining the dam's environmental impact alone would take another whole movie. Instead, Yung trains his lens mainly on the cultural impact, switching between the stories of the dirt-poor farming family of scullery worker Yu Shui (dubbed "Cindy" by the cruise operators) and Chen Bo Yu ("Jerry"), a cocky, middle-class kid whose affluence is a direct byproduct of the economic miracle currently transforming the face of contemporary China.
Jerry, it turns out, doesn't really need his job tending bar for German tourists and toting luggage for $30 tips. Cindy does, though, because her family is one of many that will be uprooted as the river rises.
The contrast between the two narratives is telling. On the one hand, Cindy and her parents represent what's good and what's bad about the past: simple living, crushing poverty. Jerry, on the other hand, represents the future, progress at the expense of humanity.
The disparity between Cindy and Jerry is itself obscene, but less so than that illuminated by the customers of Farewell Cruises, whom Yung shows to be almost parasitic in the way they feed off the misery (albeit without knowing it) of those who serve them.
-- Michael O'Sullivan (June 27, 2008)
Contains occasional, brief vulgarity. In Mandarin and English with subtitles.