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Up The Yangtze (2007) - Review

Progress: At What Cost?

About.com Rating 4 Star Rating


Up The Yangtze (2007) - Review

Yu Shui and Her Family

Yung Chang
In Up The Yangtze, director Yung Chang boards a cruise ship touring the Three Gorges Dam area. In telling the stories of several young crew members who've lost their homes due to the Yangtze's rising waters, the filmmaker investigates social, economic and environmental issues caused by the controversial dam project.

Chinese Workers Forced To Cruise Or Lose

The building of the Three Gorges Dam across the mighty Yangtze River will have a huge impact on human civilization. It is, in fact, the largest hydroelectric dam ever to have been built and is, in its way, a wonder of the world.

But, in China, the project is displacing two million Chinese citizens from their homes, forcing them to leave their rural and agrarian lifestyle and adopt that of low wage workers in crowded cities. Additionally, the dam is causing environmental changes that effect the rest of the world.

Up The Yangtze introduces and investigates these social, economic and environmental issues, as writer/director Yung Chang boards a luxury cruise boat that motors up the Yangtze to give (mostly American and European) tourists a preview of the dam project and take a last gander at the beautiful local landscape--before the rising waters completely obliterate it. While on board, Yung Chang follows several displaced Chinese youths whose families have sent them to seek employment as deckhands and service personnel--basically their only option for earning wages sufficient for their families to survive.

In particular, Yung Chang tells the story of a young girl, Yu Shui, who leaves her family and their home as the waters rise to cover it, and boards the ship for training. We see her struggle as she tries to fit in and meet her bosses expectations.

Making The Best of It

Co-workers step up to help her through the painful process and those training new crew members clearly understand their mission to extend beyond the teaching of essential shipboard skills and to embrace the responsibilities of life coaches who are indoctrinating these young workers to be a vital part of a modern and prosperous China that, they believe, will result from current changes in cultural and economic policy. To that end, there are pep rallies and other forms of coaching that seem preposterous, even cruel--especially since we know the circumstances in which these new workers were recruited.

Yung Chang shows tourists who gasp at the beauty of the landscape and the impressive dam construction, but seem to be completely naïve and/or uncaring about the plight of local people or, for that matter, the ship’s personnel. We see one young crew recruit who befriends a group of young guys who board as passengers, but is angered whey they and other tourists fail to tip him generously. So much for shipboard friendships. So much for cross-cultural understanding.

The Bottom Line

The film’s central strength is story of Yu Shui, which is quite moving. Additionally, the study of sociological, political and economic change in China, as presented within the context of the building of Three Gorges Dam, is fascinating. And, the cinematography is fabulous--Up The Yangtze is an extraordinary travelogue, an epic record of an exquisite place that will soon no longer be in existence--except on film.

Film Details

  • Release Date: Theatrical release on September 30, 2007 in Canada, U.S. Broadcast premier on October 8, 2008 on PBS
  • Running Time: 93 minutes
  • Parents Guide: Advisory for Parents
  • Awards:
    • Full Frame Documentary Film Festival 2008 - Charles E. Guggenheim Emerging Artist Award - Honorable Mention for Yung Chang, Spektrum Award - Honorable Mention for Yung Chang
    • Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival 2008 - Don Haig Award
    • RiverRun International Film Festival 2008 - Jury Prize Best Cinematography - Documentary Feature for Shi Qing Wang; Best Documentary for Yung Chang, Best Documentary Feature for Yung Chang; Special Jury Prize Best Cinematography for Shi Qing Wang
    • San Francisco International Film Festival 2008 - Golden Gate Award Documentary Feature for Yung Chang
    • VC FilmFest - Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival 2008 - Special Jury Prize
    • Vancouver International Film Festival 2007 - Best Canadian Documentary
  • Country: Canada
  • Language: English, Mandarin
  • Location: China
  • Distribution: ONF, PBS
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