CM . . . . Volume XV Number 21. . . .June 12, 2009.
Up the Yangtze.
Yung Chang (Writer & Director). Mila Aung-Thwin & Germaine Ying Gee Wong (NFB Producers). John Christou (Producer). Daniel Cross, Mila Aung-Thwin, Ravida Din & Sally Bochner (NFB Executive Producers).
Montreal, PQ: National Film Board of Canada, 2007.
93 min., DVD, $99.95.
Order Number: 153C 9108 300.
Dams-Environmental aspects-China-Yangtze River Gorges.
Yangtze River Gorges (China)-Social conditions.
Grades 10 and up / Ages 15 and up.
Review by Frank Loreto.
When I put Up the Yangtze into the DVD player, I expected a travelogue film. We visited China this past summer, and so I was looking forward to maybe seeing places we visited. Not long into the film, I realized how wrong I was to be.
The government of China has been working on the Three Gorges Dam for many years. It will be the largest hydro generating project in the world. Huge areas of land will be underwater, like the Grand Canyon being turned into a lake, and two million people will be relocated.
The dam project was a dream of Mao’s, and so there is great pride for some in its completion. One person interviewed, however, states that none of the money from the project will find its way into the hands of ordinary citizens. There is too much corruption. He is not angry and seems to be just stating a fact. Some of the people complaining of their relocation state that they are beaten, and that, since they have no money to bribe officials, they have no protection.
Up the Yangtze is a film about how the rising water, caused by the dam, impacts the people featured in the film and is changing the face of China. The rising water is altering both the geographical and political landscape and will alter the country forever. The film tells this story by featuring specific families.
The opening scene presents a canal lock filling up with water. Filmmaker Yung Chang states that he wants to visit the China of his grandfather. What he found was a new country being created. He tells the story slowly and shows that, like the rising river water, the changes will be impossible to stop.
Much of the film follows a family which has already been displaced by the project. They now live by the river in what is basically a shack on land that is not their own. In time, they will have to move, but, for now, they are able to grow their own food. The daughter tells the family that she would like to go to high school, but her brother laughs and asks, “Where’s the money for that?” Because the family needs money more than she needs an education, she is sent to work on a luxury boat that goes up and down the river. The daughter is angry and hurt that her mother does not go to see her off. While the parents are sympathetic to their daughter’s situation, there is no question that she is to make this job work.
The first order of business is to give her an English name, and so she becomes Cindy and is taught “proper hotel English.” She starts by doing dishes and eventually works her way up. However, this is not what she had planned for her life. The tourists are nice enough, but this is “Cindy’s” country, and now her job is to wait on these foreigners. “Jerry,” another ship worker, is let go because he comes off as too arrogant with the passengers.
Meanwhile, the water is rising, and “Cindy”’s family must relocate again to higher ground to accommodations provided by the government. The mother admits that it is safer there, but they cannot grow their own food anymore.
As their former house by the water slowly becomes submerged, the luxury cruise boat is seen sailing by in the distance. The family gathers to watch their home disappear, and “Cindy” can see her future.
Up the Yangtze is a beautifully filmed work. The underlying theme of injustice is painful to watch as there is no hope for change as this is the change the government wants. The film ends with the lock filled up. The lock gate controls the water - the flooding is not a natural disaster. Whether this is good or not for China is never stated. Clearly it is not good for “Cindy.”
This film would have applicability in Geography, History, or any course dealing with world Economics or Social Justice. As a film, Up the Yangtze could be studied in Media or Film. The pace of the film is very slow, much like the rising water. One cannot tell of the destruction of a people’s way of life quickly. However, students may find the pace and length tedious.
Recommended with reservations.
Frank Loreto is a teacher-librarian at St. Thomas Aquinas Secondary School in Brampton, ON.
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