Yung Chang grew up listening to his grandfather’s tales of China, an exhilarating mix of myth and memory. When he went along for his grandfather’s return home in 2002, he says, “I believed that somehow I would get to see the China that he remembered. Instead, we found something entirely different.” As they traveled up the Yangtze River on a luxury cruise, Yung Chang was struck by the collision of eras and ideologies, represented on a massive scale by the Three Gorges Dam. The largest hydroelectric power station in the world, the dam is slated to become fully operational in 2011.
As Yung Chang reveals in his documentary, Up the Yangtze, the project has raised familiar questions concerning the costs and benefits of “progress”. These effects are embodied by two young workers, Yu Shui and Cho Ben Yu, hired by the cruise line that offers “farewell tours” of the river. Their stories, at once sad and laced through with hope, expose the effects of economic and political changes in China, particularly those represented and imposed by the dam.
Designed to help control flooding and provide drought relief as well as generate 20 percent of the country’s energy needs, Three Gorges has also been criticized for its deleterious effects on forests, wildlife, and water quality. Above all, it has changed the ways and places people live. By the time the dam is done, the film reports, an estimated two million Chinese will be displaced.
Yu Shui’s family is among those who are compelled to move. Her father used to work as a coolie in the “Ghost City” of Fengdu, he says, carrying bags. Though the dam’s construction has forced most residents to move across the river to the new Fengdu, Yu Shui’s father explains that they cannot afford to move, and so he has built a shack on the river’s shore, a shack that will soon be under water. Until then, the family plants its own vegetables and keeps a chicken to lay eggs. As Yu Shui puts it, the downside is that “the house we live in is not in very good condition, but the good side is, we have very good food.”
The film offers respectful yet intimate glimpses of their daily activities, harvesting corn and preparing noodles, gathering by candlelight to eat dinner. It also presents the decision by Yu Shui’s illiterate, impoverished parents that she will be unable to go to school, as she has hoped, but instead will go to work for the cruise line. “Before, I think my dream was to go to university and be a scientist,” she says, her eyes watery, “But now, I think that’s impossible.”
At the same time that Yu Shui feels forced to work on the boat, Chen Bo considers himself fortunate to have this chance at advancement. “I am ambitious,” he says during an evening out with his friends, just before he’s to start work. As the camera frames him against the neon lights of a nightclub he explains, “I’m never satisfied with what I have. I don’t want a flat and tasteless life.” And so, he says, as his friend pours shots of vodka, the new job is a means to an end: “Tomorrow will be about my career.”
On the boat, Yu Shui and Chen Bo meet their new boss, Michael, who observes of his new recruits, “Most of them are the single child in the family, they are like the apple of their mother’s eyes, and so I think they are spoiled. They are kind of self-centered. They don’t know how to care for others.” He smiles, “It is my job to teach these kids professional skills and also the meaning of life.”
To begin, they are assigned English-language names (Yu Shui is “Cindy” and Chen Bo, “Jerry”), then instructed in how best to please the tourists. As a squad of waiters makes its way deftly through a huge room full of pale diners, Michael instructs, “Pay attention when talking to Americans… Don’t talk about Quebec independence, avoid the issue of northern Ireland… Don’t call anybody old, pale or fat. In English, you will say ‘plump'” (and here the camera offers an easy target, Caucasians on the buffet line).
Yu Shui is almost inconsolably homesick at first. As she’s told how to wash dishes, the camera keeps close on her face, eyes brimming with tears. Her supervisor thinks she’s upset at the difficulty of the job, encouraging her to take on the challenge, but you know Yu Shui has other burdens (just before she leaves home, her mother apologizes for their poverty and illiteracy, saying, “I know it’s because your father and I don’t have the skills that we have to exploit you. If we had a choice, how could we do this to you?”). Her coworkers talk about her in their cabin, perched on bunk beds as they complain about her seeming attitude. On learning her parents live “by the river” one girl insists, “If her family is poor, then she should work even harder.”
Yu Shui’s adjustment includes making friends and learning to be a good consumer. She begins to learn English, puts on makeup with a coworker’s help, even goes shopping in the mall. Chen Bo is less open to change, as he comes in believing in the system. Disappointed when the tourists treat him like a servant (“I congratulate you,” says one white lady, “You were much less obtrusive than I thought you’d be”), he focuses on the tips, which can be impressive, at least briefly.
The camera follows Chen Bo as he walks with this tourist, his shoulders slumping, his face unseen. Such visual strategy, so subtle and so evocative, is typical of Up the Yangtze‘s brilliant understatement. Respectful and riveting, it reveals the complex effects of loss and fear, as well as a kind of relentless hopefulness.