Up The Yangtze sounds like the title for a Monty Python sketch and there is a certain dark humor in this award-winning Canadian documentary film. Up The Yangtze just added Best Canadian TV program at the Banff TV Festival to its many honours.
Imagine damning the Mississippi and flooding all the towns and cities along one side of its banks that is what the Three Gorges Damn is doing to the Yangtze river.
The documentary is in part about the dichotomy of the old China and the latest new China and director Yung Chang is excellent at juxtaposing disparate elements to make his point. For example, early on in Up The Yangtze you see a Communist China band play Yankee Doodle to welcome American tourists on a Yangtze cruise ship. The tourists are laden with suitcases and photographic equipment while the Chinese peasants also boarding the ship are laden with their real earthly possessions.
Director Yung Chang makes his movie work by focusing not on the river but on the story of two families impacted by its damning. He is never didactic but often fascinating.
16-year-old Yu Shui's family could not afford to move and her father still lives on the side of the Yangtze that will be flooded. Yu Shui "Cindy" dreams of going to university but will end up working on a boat. Any family around the world will immediately understand the dilemma Yu Shui's father and family face and also see how the dice are already loaded against them and their daughter.
Chen Bo Yu's family was also displaced but did better. He is in college and "Jerry" sees a job on the ships as a step up.
Up The Yangtze of course focuses on the differences between what the tourists are presented and reality but what is more telling is the differences between what Chang presents first and next, such as the story of the antiques dealer.
In the end, the project is unstoppable and affects everyone's life.
As for many documentary films made in China, you always get the feeling some parts of the story could not be told. Up The Yangtze is an open look at the new China but you do get the feeling a certain reserve was often necessary to get the story.
The Up the Yangtze DVD features 12 deleted scenes and time-lapse footage of the flooding of the Yangtze