Up the Yangtze

"Excellent"

Up the Yangtze Review


Up the Yangtze is a masterful exercise in documentary filmmaking, seamlessly blending history, facts and figures, not one but two narrative threads, and almost unbearably intimate cinematography to capture China's past, present, and future in a perfect little microcosm. Writer/director Yung Chang is the kind of filmmaker who can successfully convey the poverty of 500 million peasants simply by shooting the mud-caked bare foot of a farmer in extreme close up.

As the Three Gorges Dam is completed and promises to change the landscape and history of China forever, Chang and his team board a luxury cruise boat for a "farewell cruise" along the river. Overweight foreign tourists crowd aboard to observe the abandoned cities along the soon-to-be-inundated shoreline while scores of locals, many of whom lived in those cities, work below deck washing dishes and folding napkins.

We dive deep into two of those lives. First is "Cindy," a dirt-poor 16-year-old who lives on the banks of the river in a one-room hut with her parents and two siblings. Although she's been a good student, there's no more money for school, and her parents have no choice but to send her off to work on the boat. Her mother tearfully apologizes for "exploiting" her own daughter, but seeing their poverty up close, it's obvious they have no options.

"Jerry" is better off. A 19-year-old charmer with a middle class background, his good grasp of English guarantees him a better job onboard. He can hang out with passengers and work for tips. Well aware that he's from a better class than most of his shipmates, he alienates himself and focuses on sucking up to the Americans and Canadian tourists.

Chang charts the changes these two kids go through as time passes on the boat. At the same time, he goes on shore to visit some of the cities destined for doom and meets the residents who are to be displaced. There's much talk of "the small family sacrificing for the big family," but in general, the people have little trust or respect for their government, which appears to be grossly corrupt and has failed to compensate Yangtze residents for their losses. In one awful moment, a tough-looking antiques dealer suddenly melts into storms of tears when he tries to describe all the indignities he has suffered simply by trying to live his life. Chang fills his film with such indelible moments. It's mesmerizing.

As months pass, Cindy sees a bit of the world and gains some self-confidence with the help of her co-workers. When her parents come to visit her onboard and meet her boss, she's clearly embarrassed by her father's filthy clothes and her mother's obsequiousness. The manager, however, remains polite and spouts clichés about self-improvement.

Things don't go so well for Jerry. In one wonderful scene, he's beside himself with glee when a tourist tips him 30 U.S. dollars. "What are they thinking?" he joyfully wonders. Quickly learning the art of groveling for tips (his strategy is to avoid the very young and very old and focus on the middle-agers), he pushes it a little too far and endangers his job. Maoism makes a funny little appearance when he's forced by his boss to write a "self criticism."

Chang's intimate access and his uncanny eye for the perfect moment makes Up the Yangtze nothing short of brilliant. As the river floods and Cindy's father is forced to strap the family's meager belongings to his back and lug them up 175 meters of newly constructed riverbank, Chang follows behind recording every grunt and groan and leaving the pitiful man bent over on the bank, regarding the river he no longer knows and starting into an intimidating and unknowable future.

Row harder. Row faster.



Up the Yangtze

Facts and Figures

Run time: 93 mins

In Theaters: Friday 11th July 2008

Box Office USA: $0.6M

Box Office Worldwide: $783 thousand

Distributed by: Zeitgeist Films

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5

Rotten Tomatoes: 96%
Fresh: 49 Rotten: 2

IMDB: 7.5 / 10

Cast & Crew

Director: Yung Chang

Producer: Mila Aung-Thwin, John Christou, Germaine Wong

Starring: Campbell Ping He as himself, Jerry Bo Yu Chen as himself, Cindy Shui Yu as herself

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