If the title “Up the Yangtze!” suggests “up a creek!,” it’s no coincidence. China’s Three Gorges Dam is considered by many experts to be a full-steam-ahead eco-disaster, but helmer Yung Chang’s gorgeous meditation is more concerned with the project’s collateral human damage: old farmers evicted, young people in servitude to Western tourists, all brought about by an endeavor whose collective weight may ultimately tilt the Earth’s axis. A gloriously cinematic doc of epic, poetic sadness, “Yangtze” should be a hit on the specialized circuit and could break out, thanks to its embrace of irony rather than righteous indignation.
Sun Yat-sen, the father of modern China, first proposed a hydroelectric plant at the Three Gorges in 1919; in the ’50s, after devastating floods, Mao Zedong revived the idea for the dam, now 1½ miles wide and more than 600 feet high. Critics have alleged that corruption has led to potentially lethal construction shortcuts and that insufficient care has been taken in flooding nearly 400 square miles, some of which contained old factories and accumulated toxic chemicals. “Like turning the Grand Canyon into a lake,” helmer Chang says, as the water, even during the course of the filming, encroaches on more land and more lives.
The latter include 16-year-old Yu Shui, whose parents are hard-scrabble peasants neither able nor willing to continue her education. Instead, she is sent to work on one of the luxury tourist boats working the Yangtze, carrying Western tourists on so-called “farewell tours” of the soon-to-be-submerged countryside. It’s pure culture shock: Yu Shui is thrown into a unfamiliar mix of corporate work ethic, middle-class customers and a managerial attitude that immediately gives all employees English names — Yu Shui becomes “Cindy”; her co-worker Chen Bo Yu is “Jerry.”
On board, they learn how to kowtow for tips. “You did nothing and they gave you $30!” a co-worker says to “Jerry.” “They’re out of their minds!” Jerry, in turn, gets predictably corrupted — he never helps the elderly, he says, because “they’re always the poorest.”
DV cinematography by Wang Shi Qing is spectacular, and the editing by Hannele Halm is unerring. Halm and Chang always seem to find the perfect juxtapositions — a Lancome ad beside a Chinese flag; the glitz of the tour boat vs. the trembling, candlelit interior of Yu Shui’s family hut; the routine of tourists on bikes going upstream as the Yangtze flows down.
There are obvious examples of culture clash — the boat manager warns his charges about guest relations, “Never compare Canada to the United States … Don’t talk about royalty … Don’t ever call anyone old, pale or fat!” Mostly, though, “Up the Yangtze!” plays quite a subtle game with its subjects, with Chang displaying a precocious self-assurance, letting the viewer draw his or her own conclusions. Often enough, the conflicts are embodied in a single subject, such as the riverside merchant who explains that people along the Yangtze must “sacrifice the little family for the big family,” before breaking down in bitter tears. Beside him, as if supervising, is a bust of Mao.
The qualities of the production, like the Three Gorges itself, are oceanic.