September 6, 2010

Up the Yangtze, With a Paddle

The Yu Family, 2007
I consider 2008 the best year of the last decade for documentary film. Consider Surfwise, Trouble the Water, Man on Wire, Young @ Heart, Nerakhoon (The Betrayal), and Bigger, Stronger, Faster*, along with the second tier of Encounters at the End of the World, Dear Zachary, American Teen, Blindsight, Waltz with Bashir, and Standard Operating Procedure.

Above all of these great films that year, however, I placed Up the Yangtze, Yung Chang's heartbreaking examination of the impact of the Three Gorges Dam on the lives of lower and middle class Chinese living along the banks of the Yangtze River. From my review: "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 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."

The film somehow eluded the attention of AMPAS (who award the Oscars), but it did win numerous other awards and received healthy praise from critics. It was also broadcast on PBS as part of its POV documentary series, and now, two years later, the POV blog has an encouraging update from Yung Chang about the main family profiled in the film. Some highlights are below:

The Yu Family, 2010
"Yu Shui [Cindy] has just graduated from high school. She's 20! She'll be getting her examination results in mid-August. She plans to study computer programming or hotel management...but it all depends on her examination results. She's matured into a beautiful, outgoing and intelligent young woman. I think she's taken it upon herself to take care of her family...

...Your donations have gone a long way to give the Yu family stability and comfort. The kids are eating healthier and focusing on school. Mr. Yu still has health problems but his eyesight is much better. He's still working as a porter in Fengdu. At 58, I don't think he's planning on retiring anytime soon. In addition, the Yu family has acquired a small plot of land just above the embankment, where they grow corn to sell at the local market. Mrs. Yu still does farm work and helps run the house. I went to visit their home. It's a new apartment near the home they moved into in the film, about a five-minute walk from the Yangtze River and the embankment where they originally lived...

...Yu Shui was extremely shy when we were making Up the Yangtze, but in the three years since, her level of self-confidence and ambition have made a complete about-face...

The donations to have established a long-term fund for the family. I think your donations are the most valuable and rewarding gestures that I've experienced in making this film. What a positive and generous gift. You've helped one family, but it goes a long, long way."

I had no idea there was a donation fund set up for the Yu family, but it's pretty awesome that people who saw the film donated close to $35,000 to assist a family that was doing their very best to make ends meet under near-impossible circumstances.

If you have not yet seen Up the Yangtze, rent it now and witness a vivid portrait of contemporary China framed by the construction of one of the largest man-made projects in human history.


  1. I quite agree Dan, 2008 is the top year for docs. And UP THE YANGTZE is an excellent choice for the top spot. For me it's your choice and DEAR ZACHARY neck and neck. But some really outstanding films in this group.

  2. This year is shaping up to be pretty strong as well, and I say that having so far missed a lot of big 2010 documentary titles (Joan Rivers, Exit to the Gift Shop, etc.). I'm looking forward to a number of them in the next few months: The Tillman Story, Inside Job, Waiting for Superman, Freakonomics, Winnebago Man, and more.

  3. Thanks for highlighting this documentary, which in general tend to get a lot less publicity even if they are excellent. I will try to get my hands on this!

  4. I hope you do, Castor, as well as others from 2008 that I listed. Not sure where you land on the documentary fan scale (I'm close to a 10, close to obsessive), but what made a lot of those '08 films great was that they were watchable for really anyone (Man on Wire being the best example, even if I wasn't over the moon for it).


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