2007 // Canada // Yung Chang // July 30, 2008 // Theatrical Print
B - Yung Chang's Up the Yangtze dangles delicately in the documentary space between an unvarnished portrait of life and a nimble examination of social issues. Deceptively modest in its approach and laced with swift, unexpected stabs of pathos, Yangtze is most essentially a glimpse of a land in flux. Chang is plainly fascinated with the ways that epic changes to landscapes and societies sweep some people along, raise others to heady heights, and drown still others without a glimmer of pity. Yangtze is primarily the tale of "Cindy" Shui Yu, a sixteen-year-old Chinese peasant (though she looks younger) who takes a job on a kitschy river cruise in order to help her family claw its way out of poverty. Chang, however, frequently wanders away to gaze at the brown expanse of the Yangtze River, to peek in on the struggles of Cindy's parents, or to listen placidly to others only tangentially related to the story. In this way, Yangtze moves with plodding resolve from the personal to the universal and back again, its intentions naked but always accented with remarkable insight and empathy.
The Chinese-Canadian Chang dribbles sparse narration into the film, reflecting on China's future and his own family history, particularly recollected snatches of conversation with his grandfather. He explains that the Yangtze River is rising, its banks swelling under the influence of the colossal Three Gorges Dam. Millions of people, most of them poor and rural, will be displaced from their homes when the project's final human costs are tallied, if indeed they are ever tallied. Cindy's family is one such household. Her parents' decision to send her to work on the tourist ships is one born of financial necessity. There is a thin reed of hope in the choice, but Chang reveals—with a cunning appreciation for the language of face and body—how it wracks the family with frustration, sadness, and shame.
There is a tinge of the unadventurous in the subject matter here. Cindy's journey from her family's sagging peasant hut to a cheaply "glamorous" life catering to Ugly American tourists, complete with shopping trips in the city and luxuries like makeup, seems a little too conventional to be penetrating. However, Chang follows her path with unobtrusive sensitivity, as well as an eye for the uncomfortable currents of class in crypto-capitalist modern China. When Cindy's ship docks in her hometown and her parents stop by the pier for a visit, the director catches the girl squirming via her posture, eyes, and awkward rhythms. Here is something everyone can understand: the burn where love for our families shades into embarrassment.
However, Chang isn't content with a mere family drama or adolescent coming-of-age tale. The changes cascading through Cindy's young life echo the changes that overwhelm the other characters and China itself. "Jerry" Bo Yu Chen, a fellow worker on the ship, is a handsome, cocky young man with taste for bigger things. Chang is entranced by Jerry's enthusiasm at the lucrative tips offered by the work, but the director also detects the arrogance that will eventually get the young porter disciplined by the ship's manager. Jerry confesses that he senses it too, revealing self-awareness and a tendency for despair that we do not expect. It seems crude to suggest that Cindy and Jerry "represent" modern China. Rather, their lives reflect the dynamics and problems of that country writ small.
The rising waters of the Yangtze are always on Chang's mind, an obvious but complex metaphor for the forces at work in the film. Most urgently, the floods carry the risk of drowning to higher ground, threatening spaces previously sacrosanct from their currents, and forcing the Chinese to sink or swim. Although Three Gorges is a man-made thing, for people such as Cindy's family it might as well be a calamity sent by the gods. For the Party is like a god, except that it never seems to acknowledge prayers. It is a deity that only pronounces, as when a minder cheerfully explains to the tourists that all "relocatees" will be prosperous and content as a result of the dam.
In one of this documentary's most vivid moments, a shopkeeper, at first seemingly fatalistic about the project, suddenly breaks down into uncontrollable sobbing as he recalls being beaten from his home by government officials. Equally haunting is a scene near Yangtze's conclusion, a time-lapse sequence of Cindy's old home slowly being swallowed by the muddy, merciless river. Progress cannot be stopped, but it is folly (perhaps even monstrous) to insist, as the government and business boosters seem to, that there are no traumas, losses, or costs.