Friday, January 16, 2009
Up the Yangtze ***
Director: Yung Chang
Can you imagine the surreal experience of working in a boat over the place where your house used to be?
For sixteen year old Yu Shui it's a reality; growing up poor in the Yangtze riverbank forces her to take a job in a tourists' cruise to save money for high school. Her parents are being relocated to the city before the place where they live is flooded due to the construction of the Three Gorges Dam.
Now the largest hydroelectric dam in the planet, its construction which encompasses almost a century of planning has become controversial because of the social, ecological and cultural implications.
Director Yung Chang deals mostly with the social and psychological issues that come to people who have to adjust to the fact that their world is changing.
He cleverly juxtaposes Yu Shui's story with that of Chen Bo Yu, a middle class nineteen year old who also gets a job aboard the cruise.
By following their parallel stories the director is able to create what feels like a full bodied portrait of modern China as seen by members of the social circles more affected by change.
Yu Shui and Chen Bo Yu receive Western names, Cindy and Jerry respectively, and are trained in etiquette to serve tourists better.
Cindy is a shy, introverted girl who has probably never been away from her family and knows without the job she won't finish school, Jerry on the other side is an energetic, outgoing people's person who enjoys being the center of attention and is working for the extra cash (and to be the biggest earner in his family).
They are given a three month probation aboard the ship and the film draws from the audience fascination with competition to see if both will make it through. Although they are not savagely pitted against each other, their struggle for survival in the workplace gets you interested in the story.
Once Chang grabs your attention with this he will also introduce profound dilemmas that range from the spiritual to the monetary.
Being Canadian, Chang is able to detach himself from the reality of his characters and acknowledges that he went to see the China his grandfather talked about. But upon finding himself in a nation on the verge of economic boom he finds he is in an even stranger place where his features may feel appropriate, but his mind is in another hemisphere.
It's no coincidence that you feel his identification when he mentions that tourists "come here to see an ancient version of China that doesn't exist anymore".
Both unaware and in awe of their effect in this society the tourists arrive with completely different expectations. But this isn't a film about the Western way of life applied to China or one that would simply blame Capitalists (although a moment when cruise workers are lectured about not calling the people "old, pale or fat" comes off as unintentionally funny), but of the country's necessity to keep up with this world it doesn't fully understand.
When asked by some tourists about how people are dealing with being displaced from their homes, a smiling tour guide replies "they are all happy".
Reality is that the look of discontent and fear in the people we see comes far from that description. "Up the Yangtze" isn't critical of the Dam, because what can be done after it's been built?
Chang mostly relies on a humanist approach that makes of his movie a moving experience. In one of the film's most striking moments Yu Shui's father has to carry an enormous piece of furniture up a hill before the flood.
Chang doesn't intervene or help and you wonder if he is merely adding to the drama or is in fact avoiding an intrusion because he knows his help would strip the moment of its documentary quality.
With all of its ghost towns, poverty and sadness, the film has an undeniable beauty that is captured by cinematographer Shi Qing Wang who gives some images a truly haunting quality.
When all is said and done, the film doesn't come up with life changing revelations or moral lessons, but it will raise questions that it knows it can't answer.
Perhaps Chang's need to reencounter himself with his history is what gives the film it's most personal and general moment.
Thinking of his grandfather's stories and the rich mythology of the country he says "the Mountain Goddess, if she is still there, will marvel at a world so changed".
It's in the doubt in that sentence where the film's soul lies as it wonders if there can be progress without sacrifice.