Up the Yangtze (Zeitgeist Films, NR)

yangtse.jpgA cruise on the Yangtze, site of the Three Gorges Dam (the largest hydroelectric project in the world) is a fitting metaphor for the promise and cost of China’s rapid modernization.

 

 

An American and a Chinese were out driving one day and came to a crossroads. To the right, capitalism. To the left, socialism. The American says, “Let’s go to the right.” The Chinese says, “Yes, let’s go to the right, but first put on the left-turn indicator.”

That joke, told by a Chinese employee of the Victoria Queen, a luxury passenger ship specializing in cruises on the Yangtze River, encapsulates the speaker’s view of modern China. Talk socialist, act capitalist, and let the chips fall where they may.

It’s also the point of view expressed in the recent documentary Up the Yangtze by Chinese-Canadian director Yung Chang. The film personalizes the unequal distribution of opportunity in modern China by focusing on two employees who work on the Victoria Queen. Yu Shui, a shy peasant girl with only a middle-school education, works as a dishwasher and has no prospects for anything better. She’d like to attend high school and university, but must help support her family, which includes two younger children. Chen Bo Yu, a confident and well-educated only child of middle-class parents, is a bartender and tour guide, which is not only easier work but also offers the opportunity to receive tips from guests. When he is fired due to arrogance, his confidence is barely shaken because he knows his family can afford to pay for him to continue his education.

A cruise on the Yangtze, site of the Three Gorges Dam (the largest hydroelectric project in the world) is a fitting metaphor for the promise and cost of China’s rapid modernization. The dam, originally proposed by Sun-Yat-Sen and also championed by Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong, is a marvelous feat of engineering. It’s also the source of incalculable suffering for the estimated 2 million peasants, including Yu Shui’s family, who have been displaced by it. These two truths exist simultaneously, and Yang does not force them into a neat resolution or conclusion. Instead, he takes a laid-back, elliptical approach to his material and lets the story unfold through the juxtaposition of scenes and images, allowing viewers to draw their own conclusions.

Yang also allows humor to emerge from his material. The Chinese employees are assigned American names to use on the ship (Yu Shui is Cindy, Chen Bo Yu is Jerry) and are instructed in appropriate behavior with the cruse line guests, primarily Europeans and North Americans. Be polite, but not humble. Don’t say hello, say good morning. Don’t talk about the Independent Quebec movement or Northern Ireland, don’t compare Canada and the United States, and above all don’t refer to people as old, pale or fat (plump is OK).

The cinematography by Wang Shi Qing and editing by Hannele Halm are both excellent. Sometimes Yang’s approach is too spare for my taste: he seldom identifies specific locations in the film or delves much into background. This is consistent with his style of storytelling, but I would have liked to know which gleaming modern city was which, where the model worker’s apartments were located, and who decided which displaced families got to live in them. | Sarah Boslaugh

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