May 2, 2008

REVIEW: Up the Yangtze (A)

Background: About 15 years ago, the Chinese government broke ground on the Three Gorges Dam, which will be the largest hydroelectric power station in the world when it's finished in a few years. The length of the construction should give you an idea of how unfathomably massive this thing is - over a mile long and over 60 stories high. The dam will, of course, raise the level of the fabled Yangtze River by an incredible scale, and the devastating effect on the local population is the subject of Chinese-Canadian filmmaker Yung Chang's new documentary, Up The Yangtze. The film is the feature length debut for Chang and it had its U.S. premiere in competition at Sundance in 2008. Check out the trailer, and if you unfortunately miss Up the Yangtze in the theater, make sure to watch it on 10/14/08 as part of PBS's phenomenal P.O.V. series.

Synopsis : Chang gives us a personal background of his grandfather's stories about the Yangtze river (including a chilling poem by Mao Zedong: "The mountain goddess if she is still there, will marvel at a world so changed.") before focusing on the film's two subjects. Yu Shui, 16, is the eldest child of peasant farmers who live on the banks of the river. She wants to continue her education but her parents need her to work to support the family. Chen Bo Yu, 19, is an attractive, charismatic, spoiled only child from an urban, middle-class family. Both teens end up working on a cruise ship that eerily ferries its Western passengers on a "Farewell Tour" of the Yangtze's sights. Yu (known on the ship as "Cindy") struggles with her impoverished background and uncertain future; she couldn't be more out of her element, and her poor language skills relegate her to the kitchen. Bo Yu ("Jerry") charms the passengers with his singing and smiling, but like many young Chinese in a one-child state, he's used to being the center of attention and doesn't understand the meaning of humility. The story of these two is framed by an unbelievably rich study of Chinese culture and its symbolic relation to what's happening with the dam and the two million people displaced by its construction. There's no reconciliation at the end of this - the project is happening, period. Chang's motive is to simply help us empathize with those in an impossible situation.

I Loved:
+ The shockingly impressive time-lapse shot of the river's water level rising.
+ The moments of genuine comedy that are well placed and never inappropriate.
+ Getting an intimate look at life on the Yangtze river - the mysterious landscapes and bizarre nautical voyages.

I Liked:
+ That Chang didn't get his hands dirty with Michael Moore-style attempts at confronting the stubborn government or dam developers (because what would be the point of doing so now?).
+ The moving musical score, and Chang's well-timed narration.

I Disliked:
- The editing, and some of the video quality. A few sequences didn't flow very easily and the last shot left me puzzled.

I Hated:
- The utter
desperation that you feel watching the situation unfold. More than once I either threw up my hands or pounded my fist in exasperation.

Writing - N/A
Acting - N/A
Production - 8
Emotional Impact - 10
Music - 5
Significance - 5

Total: 28/30= 93% = A

Last Word: Do what you can to see Up the Yangtze at first opportunity. Yung Chang masterfully weaves power, wealth, culture, humility, sacrifice, tradition, national pride, poverty, and environmental concerns into a rich tapestry worthy of the world's attention. The production of the film is unpolished, but the raw footage is extremely potent, and the gray, smoggy feel to it brings an added sense of realism (funny to say for a documentary, but it's true). There are symbolic images that you'll remember long after it's over: a man literally carrying his house on his back, a family living by candlelight, cruise ship passengers ignorantly posing for pictures in Chinese dynastic costumes.
One of the most ironic aspects of Up the Yangtze, a searingly tragic film, is that it's frequently funny, if only for moments at a time. Some of the responses from the people Chang interviews are staggering, causing your smile to dissolve as soon as it forms - "It's hard being a human...being a common person in China is more difficult," jokes a shopkeeper before bursting into a fit of tears. The unique aspects of Chinese culture are on such brilliant display in Up the Yangtze that we Westerners will have difficulty understanding them with one viewing. What kind of society would allow this to happen? "Sacrifice the little family for the big family," laments one peasant. Chairman Mao would be proud.


  1. Now this I want to see, and your review is what got me really interested in the film.

    I find myself saying "This I want to see..." so often now that it has almost become meaningless, but I will try to see "Up the Yangtze" as soon as possible.

  2. Thanks, Nick. Glad to pique your interest, but knowing you, you would have found it at some point anyway. It's an impossible film - truly hilarious and devastatingly tragic at the same time. And there's just that one sickening shot I "love" that's almost worth the price of admission alone.

  3. Thanks for the great review Daniel. This one has been on my radar for a while now.

    I actually grew up in China, spent 6 of my teenage years there. I've seen the Forbidden City (its actually quite dull), the Summer Palace, the stone soldiers of Xi An, and been to the Great Wall numerous times. My family never made the trip down the Yangtze, although friends of ours did.

    In a perfect world, communism would be the ideal form of government. Everyone would share and share alike, no one would go hungry, life would be good. The early Christians were essentially communists. The only problem is that humans tend to get corrupted easily, and communism is nothing if not absolutely corrupting of those in power. "The good of the nation takes precedence over the lives of a few." The peasants should be encouraged! They're doing a great thing for the motherland!

    I saw The Singing Revolution last night, a documentary about the long term effects of the Soviet occupation of Estonia following World War II, and it drove home to me how much I take my freedom for granted. It's easy to forget how blessed we are in America when you have politicians decrying how much things suck all the time.

    It's amazing that this got made. I'd like to know the story behind how the filmmaker managed to get permission from the government to do this. The Chinese don't tend to like things that make them look bad.

  4. By the way, your Google adsense posted a link to a company selling cruises up the 3 gorges before they're lost forever. Ironic, no?

  5. Fascinating insight, Evan. I'm sure you'll recognize much of Up the Yangtze from your experience - not of the river, but of the culture. I haven't seen The Singing Revolution, but I know what you mean about the thoughts you had afterward. We talk (complain) a lot about freedom and civil liberties here in the U.S., but rare are the occasions when the government knowingly displaces 2 million people. I also share your thoughts on the perils of communism, and this film can't be used as any defense of it.

    I understood that Yung Chang grew up in Canada more than he did in China, but there's no explanation as to how he got the footage out of the country. Maybe he told the government it was a documentary about the Farewell Cruises, which could in some sense be considered positive for tourism. Who knows? In any case, such a tiny percentage of Americans will see this that it probably doesn't matter anyway.

    Hopefully someone will read the review before clicking on the ad for the trip. I'll consider it my public service...

  6. I missed this at my local film festival recently, but really want to see it. It sounds great...just haven't been able to find it yet.

  7. Thanks for the visit, Matthew. I believe it's getting a limited theatrical release this summer. If not, you may be able to find it on PBS through the link above. Well worth it if you get the chance.

  8. Damnit. This one came and went already in LA.

    I'll have to catch up to it on DVD.

  9. Unfortunately Hawaii doesn't play the same range of films as other places (like New York, where I just moved from) so I'll probably miss this documentary. Thanks for bringing it to my attention though because now I can at least look for it in the future.

    Great review by the way.

  10. I'll add it to my growing list of documentaries you should see, Craig. You're due for a marathon here pretty soon.

    Thanks for stopping by, Matt. I'm so sorry that you have to live in Hawaii now. Ha, just kidding. For weirdos like us (speaking for myself), a decent movie market is as important as anything else when determining where to live, sometimes too much so. Hope you like it there, and that you catch Yangtze at some point.

  11. I was just typing up the Weekend Forecast and I just noticed this is opening in LA this weekend. I thought it had already come and gone. Woohoo!

  12. Thanks for the send from LiC, Craig. It's not the happiest film of the year, but I think it's one that people should see at some point. China is going to be such a major presence in the world in the next 20 years. These kinds of things need to be known.


Related Posts with Thumbnails