Filmmaker Fathoms One of China's Liquid Assets

By John Anderson
Special to the Washington Post
Sunday, June 22, 2008

NEW YORK -- Strolling north on Sixth Avenue, on a slate gray Sunday afternoon, Yung Chang spies the vintage movie marquee on the arty IFC Center:

Hou Hsiao-hsien's "Flight of the Red Balloon."

A Kenji Mizoguchi retrospective.

"Up the Yangtze" by . . . Yung Chang.

"I know," the director agrees. "Nice company to be in." He enters the theater, introduces his film as "a cross between 'The Love Boat' and 'Apocalypse Now' " and then tells the crowd of Manhattan moviegoers how a 2002 family cruise -- a trip much like the one in his film -- inspired him to make the documentary they're about to see.

"The backdrop was the cityscape of Chongqing city, lit up in neon lights like a scene out of 'Blade Runner,' " he says. "Then all of a sudden, a marching band appears out of nowhere, dressed in starched white uniforms. They started to play 'Yankee Doodle Dandy.' That's when I decided to make the film."

Chang is Canadian, but the weirdness of "Yankee Doodle Dandy" on the banks of the Yangtze transcends national sensibilities, as does the poignancy of his subject, and his movie: A combination travelogue/social critique, it explores the human cost of the notorious Three Gorges Dam -- 1 1/2 miles wide, more than 600 feet high, flooding nearly 400 square miles, some of which contains old factories and accumulated toxic chemicals. "Like turning the Grand Canyon into a lake," Chang says in the film, during which the water just keeps rising.

Chang, 30, has been making the rounds with his movie since November, when it premiered at the Amsterdam International Documentary Film Festival. It opens in Washington Friday at Landmark's E Street Cinema.

"Yangtze" doesn't focus on the alleged construction shortcuts involved in the building of the dam, or the theory that the collective weight of its reservoir may tilt the Earth's axis. His concerns are more immediate and human: What happens to the people swept out of the way by such a project? And what's going to become of the children of China, whose country is in a seismic state of transition, and whose culture is being McWesternized?

"I met a bartender on the cruise ship whose name was Willie," Chang says -- all the Chinese cruise ship employees are assigned tourist-friendly names. "He said his grandmother would rather be drowned by the oncoming flood than have to move, and leave her past. Surrounded by all these American tourists, it was clear there was another story going on."

Two, in fact. Even three. The river itself is the star, but the principal supporting players are Yu Shui -- who becomes "Cindy" -- and her rather insufferable co-worker, Chen Bo Yu -- who becomes "Jerry."

"He's such a brash and arrogant kid," Chang says of Chen Bo Yu. "Yet I found him to have a genuine personality. He found me, actually -- when I walked into the [job] interview session on the cruise ships, he just homed in on the camera. He was ready. He wanted to be part of the film. He's young, he's 19. And he's like the ultimate capitalist beast."

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