(2007) dir. Yung Chang
viewed: 07/08/08 at Opera Plaza Cinemas, SF, CA
I was somewhat disappointed with the documentary Up the Yangtze. I didn’t care for some of its techniques and found it kind of boring at times, despite the fact that I have developed a keen interest in the subject matter, the Three Gorges Dam project in China, the largest hydro-electric project on Earth and its effect on the people, the environment, and its symbolism and impact on China and the world. As I was sitting in the theater, I was thinking to myself that I was probably the only person that I know that was actually excited about seeing Up the Yangtze, or perhaps even knew about it. It had gotten good reviews in a lot of places. I didn’t think it was all that good.
Made by Chinese-Canadian director Yung Chang, the film starts with the director’s voice-over about a trip that he is taking with his grandfather on a luxury liner “up the Yangtze”, a ride that is one of reflection for the older man, having grown up in the area, seeing the change. It’s also a culture shock of the change, the scale of change and the effects that it has on a couple of specific families and individuals. “Personalized” documentaries aren’t my favorite approach to film, but Chang actually doesn’t even stick with it. His personal story is only partial and despite opening the narrative, ends up only being a piece of the picture, and not a well-integrated piece.
The majority of the film follows a family that is desperately poor. Relocated from their initial home in a city that is now a ghost city, abandoned and deconstructed and soon to be underwater, the father had been a coolie or rickshaw runner. When they were moved out, he and his wife built a shack on the side of the Yangtze and started growing their own food. But this shack is not long for the land and air, it also is in an area that will be flooded as the dam nears completion. Their story also follows their daughter, who wants to go to high school but has to take a job, as she winds up working on one of the luxury cruise liners that go up and down the river and the culture shock between their abject poverty and the tourist industry right in front of them.
My problem with the following of this family is that some of the scenes seem staged. I say this based on camera angles and certain shots that seem so implausible as some of the family drama unfolds.
There is a lot to take stock of in the film, but I don’t feel the film really acted strongly in drawing some of these more dramatic contrasts and changes. The ghost city where the family began is eerie and odd and a shocking contrast to the neon glowing city that has been constructed on the other side of the river, modern, glowing, Vegas-like against the beauty of the sloping hills and mountains. The family that Chang follows is a striking story, showing how much of an outcast some of the peasants are just in their being. Some of the people that Chang talks to offer their feelings toward the government and its role in the lives and decisions made that are so dramatically changing the landscape. It’s a myriad of opinion.
The fact is that this is an amazing construct, this dam. It represents the vastness of power of the government in China and the technological and industrial power of the country. The landscape itself, the Three Gorges, are vast and beautiful themselves, and while the river is often brown, its majesty and power and history are dramatic.
But oddly (or perhaps not so oddly), I found director Zhang ke Jia’s Still Life (2006), a narrative film set against this change and landscape, much more compelling. Because Chang takes such a narrative approach with the poor family, the contrast may not be so stark. Besides, Zhang’s films have a documentary-like approach to the landscape and the evolving history. Still Life featured some amazing images or desolate towns being torn down, people living amidst signage of doom (soon to be flooded) areas. Though both films inhabit the region and the culture, Still Life even with its weird surrealistic moments, used its visual imagery to a stronger extent.
I don’t know why I was so bothered by the inconsistencies in Chang’s Up the Yangtze, but it felt like a less sophisticated piece of filmmaking. Not that it’s bad, just that I was hoping for more.