"Our country is really strong and powerful," says a man while surveying a great lake spread out before him. "So strong it can stop a powerful river." He's referring to China's Yangtze river and the Three Gorges Dam, the largest engineering project undertaken in China since the erection of the Great Wall. When completed, the dam will not only be the world's largest hydro-electric power station in total capacity, but will also, at last estimate, have been responsible for the relocation of 2.3 million people, their former homes swallowed up in the reservoir that forms at the dam's base. Over the past ten years, the dam has received a great deal of attention in the international media; today, it stands as a symbol for the tremendous changes occurring in China.
On the surface, Up The Yangtze, directed by Yung Chang, is about the spiritual toll due to the Chinese government's recent drive toward economic development. The film specifically documents these tolls as lived and experienced by a young man and woman, Chen Bo Yu and Yu Shui, who both take jobs on one of the luxury cruise ships that works its way up and down the river. It also documents Yu Shui's family, who are impoverished farmers forced to abandon their home to escape the rising waters of the reservoir. (Chen Bo Yu’s family was not involved in the film.)
One of the crucial competencies of a director documenting a story of this weight is the ability to work one’s way into the fabric of the world that the camera essentially violates and convince the viewer that it's "authentic." Considering that this film is driven by the emotional intensity of its participants, it simply would not work if the audience had the impression that actions or emotions were in any way artificial or fabricated due to the presence of the camera. Chang passes this test admirably, however, capturing with startling grit and intimacy the internal, spiritual struggles of the film's three main protagonists. Consider, for example, the Chinese government's known penchant for secrecy and the fact that Chang was able to document so thoroughly Shui and Yu's lives in a location as compromised as the service quarters of the cruise liner. Or consider the scene in which we see Yu Shui's mother, heartbroken that she is sending Yu Shui to work on the cruise liner instead of to school, sobbing: "I know it's because your father and I don't have the skills, that we have to exploit you."
Although the "personal" experiences of the characters are the most immediate, the film works on numerous levels. The "river" mentioned earlier is indeed the Yangtze, but it's also History and Tradition. In a sense, Up The Yangtze can be considered a documentation of the final traces of China's historical past. This is undoubtedly the angle from which most Americans will view the picture. What we observe in this film is the gradual erosion of all that China was -- portrayed by Chang as in essence rustic, natural, simple and spiritual -- and its emergence as some abstracted, second-hand (and, for that reason, very much more real) version of the essentially American spectacle of capitalism, excess, and disposable consumerism.
It is not an unbiased film. The narrator (Chang, I presume) tells us early on that his interest in the Yangtze began during a boat tour of the river he took with his grandfather, who would reminisce of the "mythical" Yangtze of his youth. It's clear that Chang has internalized his grandfather's fondness for the China of past. We do not meet Chang's grandfather and are not told of his reaction to the developments taking place across China, but Chang himself obviously laments them, for the entire film plays out as a juxtaposition of old versus new, tradition versus change, with Chang's sympathies consistently falling toward the former. And yet this is not to say that the film is entirely polemical either. No real effort is made to place blame here. There is no explicit anger expressed toward America, nor necessarily toward capitalism either (aside from that which we, as Americans, impose ourselves), and there is limited -- though certainly existent -- frustration directed at those "higher levels of government," who lust only after power and wealth and so forsake their people. Instead, Up The Yangtze portrays mostly resignation and sorrow.