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DRE #444020

Film Review

Up the Yangtze

In this short, but powerful and moving documentary, Yung Chang, a Chinese Canadian film maker shows us the dramatic changes in China as the past is submerged (literally) by the construction of the nearly complete Three Gorges Dam.  This will be the largest dam in China, displacing over 2 million people, while flooding a spectacularly beautiful area.  Chang takes a large tourist boat up the Yangtze River to the dam site, and in the process films the removal of towns that will be submerged, and the people who are forced to relocate. He focuses on two teenage workers on his boat, a tall handsome boy named Jerry and a short darker complexioned girl named Cindy. Both have been given Western names so that the tourists, mostly American and European, will feel more comfortable. Jerry comes from a middle class family in one of the towns but Cindy comes from a very poor rural family who live in a tiny shack near the river. The company running the tour boats takes great pains to train their workers including English classes and mentoring with more experienced employees. The company formations are martial but some of the training is unintentionally humorous, such as the admonition never to talk about politics or sensitive subjects, and to never call anyone "fat". The preferred word is plump.  Jerry is a quick learn, ambitious, and somewhat arrogant.  Cindy, whose parents, illiterate and raising vegetables in their tiny garden to survive, desperately need her salary, is initially depressed by the work but gradually pulls through, partially due to the help and encouragement that her co-workers give her. Each has a 90 day probation period, and their fates are quite different. We cringe when we see the interactions between the tourists, many of whom are indeed plump, and the workers.

Chang opens the film by narrating his reason for making the trip, which is to see the old China of his grandfather's stories, before it disappears. The shots of the river bank are stunning, and the look at the many towns being dismantled and literally carried away are very poignant. There is an interview with an antique ceramics dealer whose little store must be moved, and this interview is unforgettable. The camera lingers in Cindy's little house by the river, and we see the grinding poverty in which she has been raised.  The dam has been closed and the waters are rising, giving an urgency to people's efforts to move, including Cindy's family. There is a time lapse look at their house that is as haunting as anything I have ever seen in a film, as we see her former life disappear.  Yangtze has so much great cinematography that it begs to be seen in a theater. And with a powerful story in a very very accomplished work by a nearly unknown film maker. Playing now at the Bridge but will move to the Lumiere on Friday. Don't miss this.  

PS: A truly excellent companion film dealing with the impact of the dam is Manufactured Landscapes.  Also gorgeous, powerful, and sad.  Available on DVD.

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