Yung Chang’s first trip to China was unlike anything he had ever imagined. The perceptions of his home country were riddled with delusions, after realizing the images his grandfather had engraved in his mind were virtually non-existent. The mythical Yangtze River is now engorged, as a result of a dam being built around it. The dam has become a symbol of China’s ever-changing economic situation.
“It was for me a revelation that China had changed so much,” said Chang in an interview Saturday. That revelation inspired him to use his passion for filmmaking in order to go beyond the environmental consequences of the Three Gorges Dam. The Yangtze River has displaced millions of men and women and Chang saw it as his duty to tell their story.
In his documentary Up the Yangtze, Chang follows Yu Shui, the daughter of two uneducated peasants. Yu longs for a high school education, but her parents won’t allow it until she is able to raise enough money. She is sent off to work on a luxury cruise ship offering farewell tours of the Yangtze to middle-class tourists who, similarly to Chang during his first trips to China, witness a country undergoing drastic changes. Yu is given work in the boat’s kitchen, and it is in this place that she emotionally crumbles under the weight of her sadness, only to recover by facing the truth of her situation.
“I saw the boat as purgatory, in that Yu’s locked on this traveling cruise ship on the river of life. She’s caught on this boat like a prison,” says Chang.
Contrasting Yu’s story is Chen Bo Yu, a boy who leaves his middle-class family to work on the boat. Unlike Yu, Chen happily works on the cruise ship, converses with tourists and amasses some very generous tips. His over-zealousness helps nothing however, as it comes roaring back to hurt his chances of remaining on the boat.
As a whole, Up the Yangtze is a heartbreaking look at what life has become for millions of people who were forced to flee their way of life for a dam whose benefits will never outweigh its detriments. Chang says that the government itself has been unable to render a positive outlook on the Three Gorges Dam.
“They admitted that there may be a potential catastrophe in the region and they may have to relocate another two million people. Imagine a city the size of Toronto being relocated because of a dam. It’s just unbelievable.”
Attributing Heart of Darkness as his main inspiration, Chang’s portrait of China’s transformation is both distressing and beautiful. The progressive images of the Shui family’s home slowly being engorged by water are tragic and figurative of an entire culture going up in smoke.
Proof that the film is certain to change people’s perceptions of the construction of the dam, is the praise the documentary has been receiving.
After screening at the world-famous Sundance Film Festival where Chang met a number of filmmaking heavyweights including Robert Redford, the film has arrived in Montreal where it will run indefinitely at the AMC.
After that, Chang will head to Greece, Belfast, Hong Kong, Tel Aviv and an almost endless number of countries to screen Up the Yangtze. The film won the Best Canadian Documentary award at the Vancouver International Film Festival, where it also made more than $26,000 in ticket sales in a single theatre – making it the largest gross made by a Canadian film in a single theatre.
Since filming the documentary during the summer of 2006, Chang has been in contact with the Shui family. KinoSmith, the company that produced Up the Yangtze, helped pay for Yu’s high school education, allowing her to leave the cruise ship forever. Chang has also begun a fund, which he hopes will help the rest of Yu’s family out of poverty. Nonetheless, the money raised cannot help China’s displaced from the suffering they have experienced.
Nor can their country ever go back to the way it was.
Fundraising is being done through
www.givemeaning.com. For more info, go to www.uptheyangtze.com.