Film-Forward Review: UP THE YANGTZE


Reviews of Recent Independent, Foreign, & Documentary Films in Theaters and DVD/Home Video

Tourists on sampans in the Lesser Three Gorges on the Yangtze River 
Photo: Jonathan Chang

Rotten Tomatoes
Showtimes & Tickets
Enter Zip Code:

Written & Directed by Yung Chang
Produced by Mila Aung-Thwin, Germaine Ying-Gee Wong & John Christou
Director of Photography, Wang Shi Qing.
Edited by Hannele Halm
Music by Olivier Alary
Released by Zeitgeist Films
English, Mandarin & Sichuan with English subtitles.
Canada. 93 min. Not Rated

Kurt Vonnegut satirically wrote in The Sirens of Titan that the Great Wall of China was really a message to a shipwrecked space alien: “Be patient, we haven’t forgotten about you.” Writer/director Yung Chang’s feature documentary debut Up the Yangtze explores what message the construction of the even more astounding Three Gorges Dam is sending.

Envisioned at the dawn of the 20th century, the dam was championed for flood control and to be the world’s largest hydroelectric power station by Mao Tse-tung, seen in an archival clip swimming in the Yangtze River while his poetic ode to the experience is read by narrator Chang.The project’s statistics are staggering – the dam is 1.4 miles long and 607 feet high, while 134 million cubic yards were excavated to build a 370-mile long reservoir that submerged 13 cities, 140 towns, 1,352 villages, 657 factories, and 30,000 hectares of cultivated land, requiring the relocation of about two million people.

This latest wonder of the world is so visually arresting in its overwhelming environmental and human impact that it has attracted filmmakers around the world as the water will gradually and ominously rise past the warning markers to 574 feet above the river’s former surface. Sijie Dai used magic realism in Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, and Jennifer Baichwal highlighted the photographs of Edward Burtynsky in Manufactured Landscapes. Canadian Chang incorporates many of these filmmakers’ same imagery as well as the happenings on a cruise down the river like one he took with his Chinese-born grandfather several years earlier.

Chang is particularly strong in documenting the human cost of the change from an agrarian and shopkeeper economy to a service one. Usually this is a silent and slow process that can only be witnessed as a fait accompli, but here the discontinuity is abrupt. Cinematographer Wang Shi Qing surreptitiously filmed angry protests against the demolitions, and the dam’s inevitability is physically symbolized by the ever lengthening, laboriously hand-constructed concrete walls of the reservoir that overwhelm the Ghost City at Fengdu.

Chang uniquely goes further into the sociological, and very personal, changes wrought by the dam by intimately following over several months two young people, Yu Shui, 16 years old, and Chen Bo Yu, 19. Yu Shui is a sullen teenager, furious that her poor family can’t support continuing her education beyond middle school. She is the eldest in a family of peasants exempt from China’s one-child rule and uprooted by the construction project. She and her family move from a farm to a shack, then to a shantytown without electricity. Cocky, handsome, and a smooth operator, Chen Bo Yu is convinced he can capitalize on these changes as much as he has from being an only child, even though his middle-class family is also being displaced from their town. On the cruise boat, the two are given the names of Cindy and Jerry. They are even taught how to smile. Part of the film’s suspense is seeing who will best succeed in this new environment.

Three Gorges Dam attracts tourists, like the filmmaker, from around the world, just as the openings of the earlier technological marvels of the Erie Canal and the St. Lawrence Seaway did in their day. As Chang follows a Heart of Darkness-like trip into the interior, his insights of the contrasts between the well-to-do Western tourists enjoying the gorgeous view on the decks and the taught-to-be obsequious servers wring your heart. The U.S.-based cruise line gave the filmmaker access to training sessions, probationary work routines, and personnel evaluations, but the film shows how the old-style Communist group think is now turned towards capitalist corrections as co-worker gossip determines the teenagers’ futures. As one ship supervisor jokes, China is embracing capitalism by going right and using the left signal.

While Chang spent months gaining the confidence of the young people he followed, he is not just a passive observer. He asks leading questions to initiate discussions of sensitive family dynamics and economic dislocations. To create visually pointed comparisons, he intervenes, bringing Yu Shui’s family to visit her place of employment, much to her pained embarrassment, and to the dam’s hydroelectric plant. The bosses politely but condescendingly treat them as ignorant peasants who have to be swept away for the good of the country’s overall progress. It seems as if Vonnegut’s space aliens may have had more hope for the future. Nora Lee Mandel
April 25, 2008



Archive of Previous Reviews

Contact us