Although the flooding is near completion–the last city to be inundated is going under this fall–the consequences of China’s Three Gorges Dam will shudder through generations.
But that’s a big story, and big stories are hard to tell well. One way is to find a character, a family, a community, and to show how the big story reverberates on the smallest level. The Chinese-Canadian filmmaker Yung Chang has found Yu Shui, her family, and a floating tourist ship offering Farewell Tours to the gorges, and through them he shows us some of those consequences in Up the Yangtze, his first feature-length documentary.
What we come away with is a multi-layered portrait of modern China, one whose brief moves beyond the dam and, in a series of subtle strokes, illuminates the conflict and paradox that define life for hundreds of millions. The strands are numerous and finely woven together: urban vs. rural, ambition, ownership, education, migration, resource allocation, and the uncomfortable relationship between Westerners and Chinese.
It’s worth noting that the dam has put people in uncomfortable situations since before it was built, such as when the People’s Congress passed a resolution in its favor in 1992. In that vote, fully a third of the congress either voted against or abstained from supporting the already controversial project, notable results from a body that is often dismissed as a rubber stamp.
I’ll grant that my perspective and enthusiasm is colored by my own limited experience in rural China, where many of the same themes I listed earlier are evident. But you can leave behind the political and social lens and enjoy the documentary for any number of other features, including the incredible cinematography, the intimate portrayal of family dynamics, and fleeting moments that are visually stunning and yet heartbreaking or frustrating.
I missed the film when it was in theaters this summer, but was lucky to catch it on PBS, where it screened as part of the POV series. You should now be able to watch it on DVD. In the meantime, here’s the trailer:
[Photo by Jonathan Chang]