Up the Yangtze


Up the Yangtze

Touring China's troubled waters.


Midway through Chinese Canadian filmmaker Yung Chang’s powerful documentary Up the Yangtze, we find an elderly woman attesting in song that she will “pray for the youth.” You could think of the film as that prayer, a precise and nuanced look at a riven China that’s respectful of its traditions but anxious about how to carry them forward into a radically changed new world that devalues them.

Chang’s portrait of the Yangtze appropriately begins with a glance at the two million residents cleared out of their homes and relocated across the river to make way for the Three Gorges Dam, a well-documented ecological catastrophe. Yet the film’s peculiar strength lies in its focus on a pair of enterprising Chinese youth working service jobs aboard the luxury boats that shuttle Western tourists up the spectral river on “farewell tours” of a land they don’t know.

The teens are a remarkable study in contrasts. Yu Shui is a 16-year-old preoccupied with her future. Her parents, forced from their homes by the rising floodwaters and shunted into a new life as subsistence farmers, must decide whether she’s to go to school, as she’d prefer—“the country needs well-educated talent,” she says, as if reciting a pamphlet—or work in one of the only venues available to her. Pragmatic where Yu Shui is hopeful, the film’s other main focus, urbanite Chen Bo Yu, instead sees the cruise as a kind of Western finishing school: a good place to hone his English and make tips off American women in outlandish hats.

True to the hybridized vessel the teens eventually call their workplace, there’s a mercurial strangeness to the film’s tone that’s quite unlike the typical environmental documentary. With beautiful long takes and non-intrusive cuts, Chang gracefully modulates the mournfulness of his rural footage—which finds devastating pathos in a shopkeeper’s cry that “China is too hard for common people”—with the surrealism of life aboard a boat crammed with gaudy Americans who inexplicably find the native staff “strange.” The funniest aside is probably the workers’ indoctrination session, where they’re warned not to talk about “Northern Ireland or the independence of Quebec,” lest they offend one person or another. But there’s pain even in the warped humour, and we can’t help but wonder how Chen Bo Yo (rechristened “Jerry”) and Yu Shui (alias “Cindy”) might be reached by their countrywoman’s prayer when their training for the future is so anemic.