06 March 2010

Review: "Up the Yangtze"

Up the Yangtze is a 2007 documentary film about the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze river and its affect on the people in nearby communities. I first heard about the film in 2008 from a family friend, and unfortunately it was not an easy film to find in theatres. The film was directed by an up and coming Canadian filmmaker, Yung Chang, and was screened at such festivals as Sundance, Toronto International Film Festival and the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. Up the Yangtze was produced by the National Film Board of Canada and Montreal's EyeSteelFilm, which produces socially conscious films. The Canadian Broadcast Corporation (CBC) and National Geographic Channel also participated in the making of the film. Up the Yangtze is an intriguing film that offers views and insights into the lives of people in China, while also depicting the emerging concerns of capitalism and Western tourism.

Up the Yangtze primarily focuses on one of the cruise ships that travels the Yangtze river. This particular ship mostly serves wealthy Western tourists and is advertised as an opportunity to travel the Yangtze river before the Three Gorges Dam is completed. The ship employs young Chinese men and women who are forced to take English names and learn English. One of these young girls, Yu Shui (renamed CIndy), is from the village Fengdu (which will be completely flooded by the dam). Her family is very poor and lives on the edge of the river in poverty. She once had dreams of university, but her parents needed her financial contribution and she was sent to work on the ship. Conversely, there is a young man named Jerry, whose father is more affluent than Cindy's, and he chooses to work on the cruise ship. Through behind the scenes footage of the lifestyle on and off the ship, Up the Yangtze gives considerable insight into how capitalism is affecting China and its people.

It was only recently that I came to understand how investigative journalism affects documentary filmmaking. The film Burma VJ, about military uprisings in Burma, had to be smuggled out of the country. The film crew of The Cove had to smuggle equipment into Japan. I have very little knowledge about the lifestyle in China, but Up the Yangtze made me feel guilty about "Western" tourists visiting impoverished reasons because of how negatively it affects the people and their culture. The film contains beautiful images of the region, and it does try to depict an honest and realistic China, but I feel that the film only skimmed the surface and could have gone further in depth. I sympathized greatly with the people whose lives were affected by the Three Gorges Dam, and when the film ended I was left to wonder what ultimately happened to them.

My rating: 3 stars out of 4.

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