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Up the YangtzeReview - Up the Yangtze
by Yung Chang (Director)
Zeitgeist Films, 2008
Review by Christian Perring
Nov 18th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 47)

Up the Yangtze follows two main characters, Yu Shui and Chen Bo Yu, who both work on the boats on the Yangtze river that entertain foreign tourists.  Yu Shui is 16 years old but seems younger compared to Western teens.  She is from a very poor family, the eldest of three children -- her parents are both illiterate, and they live in a makeshift shed close to the river.  Her father does manual labor and we see the parents collecting ears of corn that grow wild.  Yu Shui would like to go to high school, but the family cannot afford it, and send her off to work on the tourist boat.  There she is given a western name, Cindy, and she starts washing dishes, and seems to hate her new life at first, but gradually gets used to it and starts to take on more responsibility.  She looks deeply embarrassed when her parents visit the boat and meet her boss.  Chen Bo Yu is from a wealthier family, and is much more full of confidence.  At 19, he is a single child and seems happy to work on the boat, boasting of his abilities to get tips from the passengers.  We see his hopes at earning more than his parents ever made, and him telling his friends that his job is the start of his life of success.  He seems much more comfortable being renamed Jerry when he starts on the boat.  Yet his cockiness may also be his undoing, and it is not clear that he will be able to keep his job. 

The other main theme of the documentary is the massive change to the area around the Three Gorges Dam as work on it proceeds and the water level rises.  We see the locals such as Yu Shui's parents being relocated, moving all their belongings, and having to learn to live in a very different culture.  The tourists go around the new houses of the relocatees, and the tour guides give a very positive spin to the social changes being made.  The filmmaker shows a different side of the story, with local towns protesting about the lack of compensation for having to leave their own homes, and the dangerous work conditions for those working on the Dam.  The building of the Dam mirrors the capitalist conversion for the rest of China, and this is epitomized when we see Cindy shopping in the big city, trying on more sophisticated clothes and starting to like it. 

This is a fascinating documentary, quietly commenting on how China is evolving, making clear the anger of people at the government, without romanticizing the peasant lives they are being forced to leave behind.  Yu Shui's relationship with her parents is especially moving, since we see how they feel bad for being unable to make her life better, yet unabashedly requiring her to go to work and send most of her wages back home to them.  The occasional voiceover by the filmmaker is sometimes a little awkward, but the cinematography is compelling, with its scenes of the work on the Dam, and the old living quarters of people what will soon be underwater. 

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© 2008 Christian Perring

Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.


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