Sunday, January 18, 2009

Review: Up The Yangtze

Up The Yangtze (2007, Yung Chang)

In Young Chang's documentary (yay for provincial and federal funding!), we follow the paths of two very different young people who find their circumstances greatly altered with the construction of the now famous Three Gorges Dam. The communities who once called the region along the Yangtze home have now been forced to relocate due to the rapidly rising water levels, a direct side effect of the dam's presence. Bo Yu Chen and Chui Yu are sent by their respective parents to work on a cruise ship that travels along the river and caters to the traveling desires of mostly Western customers. Once hired, they are provided Western names. Bo becomes Jerry and Chui Yu becomes Cindy.

Several storylines are explored throughout the film's running length, the most obvious ones being Jerry's and Cindy's experiences as employees of the cruise agency. But time is also spent with Cindy's family, who were farmers, and thus did not need to purchase their vegetables since they could grow them themselves. But with the advent of the dam, relocation into a more urban dwelling has meant a dramatic shift in spending and lifestyle. As you can probably expect, Up The Yangtze isn't the kind of movie that applauds the potential (I use this word carefully) long term ecological benefits of the dam's creation (hydroelectric power as opposed to coal, although I know perfectly well there are debates regarding that as well). The film ponders on what these people feel about being forced to move out of their homes. This movie is one that demonstrates how change can mean pain for some.

There are also some fascinating scenes on the cruise ship. We have gotten to know Cindy, Jerry, and the family members to a certain extent. Jerry is from a decently wealthy family but Cindy's parents are definitely down in the rut, but to see both of them cater to travelers who, at least I presumed (perhaps incorrectly), weren't going to really appreciate the culture of the region, was a bit difficult to swallow. Cindy is having trouble adapting to this new life, not only because she has little experience in the workforce, but also because she had previously planned to continue her education until not long ago. With the changing times and the family's budget on a tight string, her aspirations are put on hold indefinitely. It's a cruel blow to her, but one of only several cruel blows that are dealt a host of people director Chang during his stay in the region. It's a biased film, no doubt about it. Maybe not Michael Moore biased, but biased nonetheless. However, once one has read a bit on the subject matter and sees how the change in the region is indeed affecting these people through this film, their stories becomes quite powerful. The film and those interviewed make no attempt at hiding the fact that those who were promised compensation from the central government for losing their homes have yet to receive what is owed to them. It's a perfect example of how a big national project, which aspires to do accomplish great things and probably will, can have devastating effects on those who aren't really 'in' on the deal. It may be biased, but on the other hand absolutely nothing is fabricated. What is happening is real, is genuine. With change can come some good and some bad. Up The Yangtze ponders on the bad, but I'd be damned if it isn't convincing.

The movie also has some excellent shots of the dam, the river and the towns nearby. This documentary is not your typical talking heads affair. Director Chang evidently put considerable effort into not only telling relevant stories, but also in sharing the natural beauty of the region, the man made awe inspiring construction that is the dam, as well as the ecological and demographic consequences of such a project. Many shots linger, with the camera focusing on particular locations or objects, but in each occasion the shot is beautiful and more often than not poignant for the subject matter. Extra points for giving the film a visual boost.

Chang's effort at sharing the stories of the 'little guys' shouldn't be overlooked. It's a great looking film, a testament to Chang's fine visual eye, but also an insightful look into a hectic chapter in the lives of people who, for all intents and purposes, have absolutely no say or control in massive, life changing events that dictate what happens to them, even though those more powerful do.

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