Yung Chang’s brilliant new documentary feature is a very difficult one to watch as it heartbreakingly charts the human cost of China’s relentless stampede towards further progress. With great effect he illustrates the perverse ironic extremes, taking us inside the luxurious cruise ships on their ‘farewell’ tours of the Yangtze – mostly obnoxious American tourists inside – whilst China’s own people live in the most unimaginable poverty on the river’s banks, slowly being swallowed by the rising water as the Three Gorges Dam project reaches its inevitable conclusion.
Yung, a Canadian of Chinese ancestry, concentrates on two young people from different backgrounds who seek work on the cruise ship – Bo Yu Chen (“Jerry”), an arrogant young man from a reasonably well-off family who can sing and charm with his good looks but see only dollar signs in the offering with this new job.
Then there’s Shui Yu (“Cindy”), whose family the film concentrates on the most; her parents are poor beyond any concept of the term we can possibly imagine in Australia, with no education or money to assist their three children, barely able to survive on rice and noodles as they live in a horrible rundown shack on the Yangtze’s banks, already having moved once to avoid the rising tide and soon needing to move again.
We watch Shui and Bo Yu’s journey aboard the ship, learning to fit in with the crew as they try to become the perfect employees, increasing their English skills and winning over the respect and tips of the carefree tourists. And yet despite the overwhelming circumstances destroying their lives, Shui’s father elects to ‘see’ the benefits of the Dam in terms of strengthening China even further. Even more amazing is how this family of five remains a loving family unit, unified by the pain of their lives under these desperate conditions – parents who love, in their primitive way, and dare to hope for a better life for their children.
Chang’s film is a powerful document of this country’s changing face, and a potent illustration of the immense gulf that exists between rich and poor, and between perception and understanding.
How can you not be moved when you see Shui’s father walking his meager, falling-to-pieces wardrobe up a steep hill on his back or see the looks of derision and pity on the faces of wealthier Chinese passersby as they watch these impoverished people wheeling their forlorn possessions up a mountainside to escape the voracious waters that are coming for them with all the force of the hand of God Itself.
There are so many other powerful images too – the tears in Shui’s eyes as her parents, in their dirty clothes, are given a tour of the cruise ship, which must surely seem like a spaceship to them; a series of shots in time lapse showing the extent of the river’s progress, Shui’s family ‘home’ soon absorbed by the mighty river, and then forgotten, whilst the cruise ship powers by, catering to the oblivious and wealthy, not a second wasted on the world being laid to waste around them.
Aided by a haunting score by Olivier Alary, which chimes in like a beautiful but sad lament to these forgotten people, Up the Yangtze lingers in the mind like the memory of a wound that refuses to heal; it’s an important documentary and one which should be seen by all.