Film review: Up the Yangtze

A moving cinematic tale of life on Asia’s longest river raises questions about ecology, development and China’s future, says Sam Geall.

Yung Chang was 24 when he first saw the Yangtze River. It was 2002 and Chang, who grew up in Canada, had agreed to accompany his grandfather on a “farewell cruise” through China's Three Gorges before the area is flooded by the world's biggest dam project. The experience laid the foundations for Chang's film Up the Yangtze, which was screened in London in March 2008 as part of the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival. 

I ask Chang when he decided to make the film. “As we approached the waiting cruise ship,” he says, “there was this marching band, and the marching band played 'Yankee Doodle Dandy' – and that moment I decided to make this film.”

Chang persuaded the tour company to let him shoot a documentary on their ship, describing it as “a sort-of Gosford Park film.” It seems an unusual analogy at first. The country house in Robert Altman's 2001 murder mystery straddles floors and social classes, while Up the Yangtze spans Asia’s largest river and puts one of the world's most controversial engineering projects at its heart. However, the comparison is not so far off. In his careful attention to the economic dimensions of the tourist cruise down the Yangtze – and the social implications of the mega-dam project – Chang says he tried to show the viewer the “human face behind that dam”.

The principal human faces of the film are Yu Shui and Chen Boyu, two young workers on the cruise ship. Yu,16, dreams of becoming a scientist. She is the daughter of poor farmers and grew up in an illegal settlement on the banks of the Yangtze River in Fengdu, Sichuan province. Chen is an urbane 19-year-old from a wealthier background than Yu. Both teenagers reflect important aspects of the country's youth, but with his confidence and short attention span, Chen better embodies China’s single-child “little emperor” generation. We see his struggles with the ship management and his love of karaoke. Yu, meanwhile, learns how to be a woman and a consumer in fast-developing China.  

Progress, change and development are at the heart of the film, not least in the lives of its two teenage protagonists. At one point in the film, Chang's voiceover quotes Mao Zedong’s famous 1956 poem about the dam project, which was then just a dream, but now has displaced nearly two million people:

The mountain goddess, if she is still there;

Will marvel at a world so changed.”

This changing world is the film’s only constant. Chang first visited the country in 1997 “with some idea of a more preserved culture.” He now regards his nostalgia as naïve. Chang was awed by Chongqing, the world’s largest municipality and home to more than 30 million people. “It was like a scene out of the movie Blade Runner, arriving in this city lit up in neon lights,” he says. “It’s certainly a country that’s always moving forward. The sense of preservation is something that doesn’t exist.”


Photo credit: Yung Chang

Chang, however, describes the march of progress with a hint of sadness. Over the four years he researched and shot Up the Yangtze, the filmmaker accompanied countless near-identical trips up and down the disappearing gorges, but as memories of the river were drowned beneath the rising waters, the only thing that altered was the language. “It's the same boat,” he says. “The only thing that changes is the language of how people describe things: there was a change in the tense that was used [to describe the river]. For me, it was almost like being in some kind of time-warp.”

If Up the Yangtze is a film about progress, it is also about sacrifice. The ship's workers and local residents often reflect on the choice between the “little family” — their loved ones and livelihoods displaced by the dam project — and the “big family” — the nation and its economic development. It is a difficult choice at the heart of the film.

In September 2007, Chinese officials admitted for the first time that the dam had caused myriad ecological problems in the region. The People’s Daily reported that these included “more frequent landslides and pollution”. If preventive measures were not taken, said the newspaper, “there could be an environmental ‘catastrophe’”. Does Chang agree with this assessment? “I know there are a handful of benefits,” says Chang. After witnessing the project, however, he found “the negative effects well outweigh the benefits in terms of social and environmental impact.”

The filmmaker met fishermen whose stocks had dwindled due to pollution in the river. He also saw deeply unhappy residents protesting corrupt local officials who had mishandled the resettlement programmes for people displaced by the dam. The film is not simply reportage, however, Chang says he set out to capture something “dramatic and cinematic”. “It’s really about finding the human emotions, and by extension triggering the discussion about the environment and social issues.”

Chang's training in Meisner technique, a method of acting, may be one of the ways he managed to capture such raw, intimate exchanges between its protagonists. The documentary is cinéma verité at its best: striking and moving, not only in its vivid depiction of environmental and social issues, but also its keen eye for Chinese family lives. Up the Yangtze is showing at film festivals around the world and has impressed prominent Chinese environmentalists, some of them critics of the dam for 20 years or more.

But what effect did the film have on its subjects? Chang, who became part of Yu Shui's “extended family” during the filming, said Yu was deeply affected by the documentary. “She told me that through watching the film, she was able to see her fate and her destiny. In fact, she decided to leave the boat to go back to high school.”  

But what lies in Yu Shui's future? Chang says he doesn't know. And the same, of course, is true of the Three Gorges. We cannot know what lies in its future, but one thing is for sure: this important story of progress and sacrifice is not over yet.

Sam Geall is deputy editor of chinadialogue