China’s hydroelectric Three Gorges Dam may be an ecological nightmare in the making, but Yung Chang’s Up the Yangtze is concerned less with its damage to the environment than to the country’s rural citizenry. With delicacy devoid of preachy grandstanding, Chang documents a landscape mutating not only literally but socially and economically as well, as flooding of countless cities and towns along the Yangtze’s banks leads to displacement and, in turn, to an encounter between old and new worlders. This uncomfortable meeting is encapsulated by the employment of poor Yu Shui and middle-class Chen Bo Yu on a Yangtze cruise ship for tourists (dubbed “goodbye tours”), as well as the plight of Yu Shui’s destitute family as they struggle to subsist along a shoreline that will shortly cease to exist. Though there’s a drastic disconnect between the ship’s well-off Western guests and Yu Shui and Chen Bo Yu (who are given English names—Cindy and Jerry, respectively—and work hard learning proper service etiquette), Chang acknowledges this division without exploiting it for condescending knocks on tourists, focusing instead on the psychological adjustments required by China’s plans for progress. Homesick Yu Shui gradually embraces shopping and makeup as normal facets of life, while Chen Bo Yu plies his charm and good looks for extra tips, their gradual and at times difficult personal makeovers mirroring the tumultuous changes to their home terrain. One soon-to-be-relocated shop owner cries, “China is too hard for common people,” a sentiment poignantly expressed by the frustration and sorrow seen on the faces of Yu Shui’s parents as they gaze at the watery spot where their ramshackle hut now sits submerged. Chang gracefully juxtaposes the country and the metropolitan—and, in the sight of the aforementioned teary store owner grieving as a bust of Mao smiles behind him, the past and present—to express the knotted-up mixture of anguish, anger, hope, and trepidation of those in the dammed river’s wake. It’s a tender and profound portrait of unwieldy, mass-scale modernization at work, a process multifaceted enough to include Yu Shui’s dawning optimism, Chen Bo Yu’s dispiriting setbacks, and a cheery tourist rendition of “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean” that also serves as a lament for tradition’s demise.
- Zeitgeist Films
- 98 min
- Yung Chang
- Yung Chang
- Yu Shui, Chen Bo Yu
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