Without a paddle

Up the Yangtze

Say farewell.

Say farewell.

Rated 4.0

It’s tempting to imagine “Up the Yangtze” as a lewd expression—some profane punch line that the movie of that title intends to unravel, like a Mandarin-language version of The Aristocrats. It’s even more tempting, upon recognizing the film as an exquisitely poetic documentary of nearly overwhelming sadness, to then feel totally ashamed of yourself.

Yes, there is much from which to take offense in Up the Yangtze, if you’re so inclined, and much from which to derive a boatload of privileged-liberal guilt. But director Yung Chang has more moderate and merciful intentions. Chang, a young Canadian citizen of Chinese ancestry, saw the culture of his grandparents’ native land slipping away—under the rapidly rising waters of the Yangtze River, to be exact—and felt compelled to record the transition. The result is sodden with anguish.

Chang knew there’d be a story somewhere near the Three Gorges Dam, Earth’s largest hydroelectric-power station, whose completion in 2011 will have spectacularly altered the ecology of its surrounding landscape (“like turning the Grand Canyon into a lake,” Chang calmly narrates) and forced millions of mostly rural poor people to relocate. And he knew this portentous event has been the subject of several commemorative creative projects already, including Jia Zhang Ke’s 2006 docudrama film Still Life.

So Chang had to discover his own way in, and accordingly, his movie takes a while to find its bearings. But the quest becomes rivetingly personal when he boards a deluxe riverboat offering “farewell” cruises to wealthy Europeans and North Americans who pay handsomely for the perverse privilege of a final gander at China’s sinking past. It’s not exactly eco-tourism, but to Western eyes, admittedly (and thanks also to cinematographer Wang Shi Qing’s beautiful, ominous imagery), this is a wondrous, alien world: Newly abandoned ancient villages line the enormous river’s edge, veiled by the persistent sallow haze of air pollution and quietly awaiting the flood’s oblivion.

Chang focuses on two of the boat’s new teenaged employees: Shui Yu, the bright but reticent dishwasher, a poor daughter of illiterate peasant farmers whose ramshackle hut soon will be swallowed by the river; and Chen Bo Yu, the apprentice steward, who comes from the comforts of the middle class and stokes his already well-developed self-satisfaction with eagerness for the economic prospects of a life in the service industry.

The youngsters’ acclimation includes some brief moments of reality-TV-style suspense and plays out in a manner both touching and absurd. On board, they’re required to go by the names Cindy and Jerry, to not call their guests old or fat or pale and to avoid all discussions of politics.

Thankfully, Chang’s conduct has no such restrictions. But it’s to his great credit that he never sensationalizes his subjects nor condescends to the sometimes self-incriminatingly oafish tourists for whom they work. What’s more, when taking a broader view, he manages always to record the most heartbreaking consequences of hasty and turbulent economic development with a clear eye—as when a river valley shopkeeper confesses that China has become too difficult for the common person, then bursts into a fit of sobs (while a smiling marble bust of Mao looks on), or when Shui Yu’s father relocates his threatened home, dutifully climbing the precipitous riverbank and heaving under the weight of the furniture on his back. Even squalor becomes strangely precious when your only options are to get to higher ground or drown and disappear.

Whether extracted from fact or fiction, movies with rivers as main characters have tended to peddle grand, archetypal themes. It’s not so far-fetched to come away from Up the Yangtze reflecting on John Boorman’s film of James Dickey’s novel Deliverance, about a bestially transformative Appalachian canoe trip; or Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, in which an obsessive tycoon hauled a steamship over a jungle mountain in order to bring opera to the Amazon; or Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, which so memorably transposed Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to war-ravaged Vietnam. The great, movie-worthy river stories, like this one, are stories of man vs. nature—and vs. his own nature.

First it was that the Great Wall could be seen from space. Now it’s that the Three Gorges Dam reservoir will weigh enough to alter the Earth’s rotational axis. What you can say is a matter of fact is that China has a thing about public-works projects of cosmic ambition. No wonder their human cost is so high.