Going into a film without any expectations is probably the best way to enjoy it.
That’s what happened to me one faithful morning at the National Film Board (NFB) on Saint Denis to view Up the Yangtze.
This documentary by ConU’s own Yung Chang was a joy to watch from beginning to end.
It was able to stir many emotions of anger, humour and sadness in the span of 93 minutes.
Filmed in the surroundings of China’s historic Yangtze River, now famous for the world’s largest dam, the young director and his crew followed the lives of several citizens affected by the construction of the ambitious government project.
The most compelling story comes from the main character Yu Shui, a timid 16-year-old, forced to quit school and work on a prospering cruise company Victoria Cruises, to support her family.
She is the oldest of a farming household living in extreme poverty that will relocate once the flooding begins.
The doc offers a good reflection of modern China.
Chang was able to contrast the many realities of the growing nation in great detail. The poor, the middle-class and the wealthy tourists are all portrayed with excellent imagery and commentary.
Most exemplifying this is the protest of a nearby village. Chang was able to interview an antique shop owner who completely poured his heart out in front of the camera about the hardships of being an “average person” in China.
“We found him randomly. At first we approached him because he was selling products from families affected by the flooding. We figured it was symbolic; selling the past,” said Chang in a recent phone interview.
“Just with gentle questioning and some time, he opened up.”
Slated for a Montreal release during the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma (FNC) next week, the up and coming filmmaker said he is thrilled to premiere where it all began.
“I think it’s an honour, it’s the hometown, and it’ll be a good experience. It’s playing to a sold out audience here [at the Vancouver International Film Festival], I’m curious to have an opinion from Québec”.
Chang’s career started in the Film Production program from 1996-1999, before studying the Meisner Technique – a renowned acting method – at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City.
His motivation to film the Yangtze River development came when he took the Victoria Cruise in 2002 with his parents and grandfather.
From there it all snowballed. After winning the best pitch prize at the Planet in Focus Film Festival in Toronto, EyeSteelFilm (ESF) and the NFB came on board as producers.
And finally in 2007, the feature saw the light of day.
Montreal isn’t the last stop for Up the Yangtze.
In November, it will appear at the International Documentary Festival of Amsterdam, the largest of its kind, and will eventually make its way to television with National Geographic, the CBC and PBS.
When asked what would have been the consequences if he were to get caught filming in China, he responded “The worst that could happen is they would get rid of the footage. We shot openly with no sense of fear, except during a protest – then we hid the camera. There’s an amazing tradition of documentary in China, some were controversial and banned, but no repercussion from the government”.
Currently Chang is still interested in making more films about his parents’ native land; he is working on another documentary about the environment and a fictional work inspired by the Tiananmen Square massacre.
However, that is not keeping him from touching base with the Shui’s.
“I went back this August and showed the film to everyone. Yu Shui was really moved – and she decided to quit work and go back to high school.
“Her father bought a very inexpensive apartment upriver in an older part of the city. Her parents work odd jobs but are mainly reliant on Yu Shui’s income, which they have probably saved up enough to last them for another year. The kids are still in school. EyeSteelFilm, the production company, paid for her high school tuition.”
FNC screening times:
Sunday, Oct. 14 at 3:15 p.m. and Monday, Oct. 15 at 7:20 p.m. Both screenings will take place @ Ex-centris, Blvd. Saint-Laurent.