I have been waiting to see the film Up the Yangtze (2007) since January when I heard about it at the Sundance Film Festival. My family went to China in 2003 and on a brief tour of the Yangtze we had seen markers for where the water would rise to and everything it would be covering up in the spirit of progress and the Three Gorges Dam. I was excited to see a movie which would discuss more behind the issue of the Yangtze River and the Dam. Unfortunately though, I missed my second opportunity to see the movie in May at the Seattle International Film Festival. I simply refused to miss it yet again when it screened at the Red Vic this week, so come Tuesday night I found myself walking up Haight Street for an eye-opening and sobering movie.
Yung Chang, the director of Up the Yangtze, was inspired to make the movie after going to China with his father, who had a version of old-China in his mind, and who saw a very different China in the cities as well as along the already quickly transforming Yangtze. Almost everyone in the film that Chang asks about the Dam and the flooding, especially those that have been or will be most affected by it, say that the project is for China and so also for them; “As one struggling merchant forced to move from his riverside home explains before breaking down in tears, the Chinese people are expected to ‘sacrifice the little family for the big family’” (Holden). This particular scene, when the merchant started crying was especially affecting because the merchant was trying to keep his composure and giving the standard, propaganda answers to questions about the Three Gorges Dam until suddenly he simply broke and could barely speak he was sobbing so hard. Chang shows the audience a very different story than diplomats and tour guides about “the incalculable human impact of the giant Three Gorges Dam project on the Yangtze, China’s longest river. When completed, the 600-foot-high dam will be the largest hydroelectric project in the world. As we watch the steadily rising water swallow more and more of the landscape, the film conveys an ominous sense of a society changing too fast in its stampede into an unknown future” (Holden). Speaking of tour guides, in another scene, there is a guide who shows a bunch of American tourists, houses that will be given to some of the relocated people. One woman mentions that there are some who are probably not being relocated to anything quite as nice, which the tour guide laughs awkwardly at and then, struggling to find appropriate words responds, “We are all happy.”
The most powerful aspect of the movie is the family that Chang followed, that still lived on the banks of the Yangtze, until the water finally flooded their home. Both parents cannot read or write and although their sixteen-year-old daughter Yu Shui wants to go to a university, they clearly do not have the money and she leaves to work on a “farewell cruise” along the Yangtze. These cruises are for American and European tourists to say good-bye to old China, but it is hard to find much presence of old China now. The tourists also do not think about the impact the river they are traveling on may be having on the very people serving their food and washing their dishes. Yu Shui’s family especially was a prime example of how families were being so negatively affected by the flooding; they lived off of vegetables that they farmed and fish from the river so where their food came from was not as much of a concern but after their house was swallowed, they were forced to find a new way to provide for four mouths. Chang obviously followed this specific family for a reason and they show very clearly how the affects of globalization are speeding up China’s “progress” at an alarming rate and “a family, a peasant family who are living in abject poverty, who didn’t receive compensation, who are not relocated… [is] very, very revealing…that the social damage, the ecological damage far outweighed the benefits of what one may say can be incurred through a megadam project” (Chang). Although there is not much that can be done now about the alarming transformation of the Yangtze, being aware of this distressing example of the toll modernization is having on our world is very important.
Chang, Yung. Interview. Democracy Now! 24 Apr. 2008. <http://www.democracynow.org/2008/4/24/up_the_yangtze_documentary_takes_on>.
Holden, Stephen. “A Visit to Old China Before It Drowns.” Rev. of Up the Yangtze, by Yung Chang. New York Times 25 Apr. 2008. <http://movies.nytimes.com/2008/04/25/movies/25yang.html>.