If there's one thing Judge Daryl Loomis hates, it's people who tour poverty stricken areas.
Imagine turning the Grand Canyon into a giant lake.
For most of the last century, China dreamed of damming the Yangtze River for flood prevention and the growing energy needs of their country. After many failed attempts, the project was started in 1994 in earnest. When it is completed in 2011, it will be the largest hydroelectric dam on Earth. While the Three Gorges Dam has its benefits to China's mounting population and their energy needs, the land destruction and citizen relocation it has caused, problems that will continue indefinitely, have caused great controversy the world over and dissention with China's own people. Under the pretense of ship tours of the Yangtze that take tourists to see sights that will so be underwater, Chinese-Canadian director Yung Chang presents many of the issues surrounding this dam in this phenomenal documentary, Up the Yangtze.
Up the Yangtze is the story of two kids employed by one of these tour companies, their trials on the boat, and how their lives are affected by both this new industry and the destructive force that created it. Yu Shui is the young daughter of subsistence farmers from the Fengdu province. They cannot afford to allow her to continue school but, if she doesn't do something, they know she will end up as poor and miserable as they are. So, ultimately against Yu Shui's will, they send her off to make money on these tours for her own financial and cultural sake. Chen Bo Yu, on the other hand, comes from a middle class background. Brought up in the midst of China's economic expansion, Chen is driven by money and wants nothing more than to make more of it than his parents do. Tall and handsome, with good English skills, he has joined the boat tours voluntarily to make tips off of rich Westerners trying to see a China that no longer exists. Together, these two characters are a brilliant combination of the two sides of China: those still living the old ways because they have no means to bring themselves out of it and those who have thoroughly eschewed the old ways for the luxury of disposable income.
With nothing but the stories of these two kids to go with, Chang's documentary would have served as a fine study of the growing acceleration of China at the expense of the peasants, once the cornerstone of Maoist Socialism. Instead, he weaves their stories into a greater vision of the dramatic humanistic changes that mark a 21st century China. In their plan to flood the gorge, millions of Chinese have been and will continue to be displaced. Forced to live in urban areas that they've never known; forced to buy food that they have grown for generations, but with no skills to adapt to the new burgeoning industries that are quickly supplanting agriculture, it is uncertain how these millions will survive and how the government will aid those who cannot cope with this new world. Yu Shui's parents have already been displaced once. After building a shanty on the side of the river where they can grow enough food to survive, the river will be flooded further and, once again, they will be supplanted; this time, to an urban area. Especially in light of the message of national unity China presented in the recent Summer Olympics, it is most interesting to hear the dissent from people, especially the elderly and working class, who are angry not only at the very fact of having to move, under the dubious philosophy of "sacrificing the little family for the good of the big family," but that they are beaten and abused by the government for their trouble.
The environmental catastrophe that is the Three Gorges Dam and the projection that the dam will only be able to supply less than three percent of China's energy needs are not discussed. Chang preferred to focus on the human aspect of the story, the deference that the boat workers must show to horribly condescending American tourists, there only to gawk at the poor in their struggles, and the microcosm of new China that the workers on the boat have created for themselves. Up the Yangtze keeps its focus very well. It is beautifully shot and expertly edited; it tells a very compelling story that moves at a fast pace toward a strong, poignant conclusion.
Zeitgeist Films has presented more of their usual excellent work for Up the Yangtze. The Anamorphic transfer is mostly good, though colors in the darker shots tend to bleed a little. The picture is very sharp, however, and there are few noticeable transfer errors. The audio in the surround and stereo tracks are both very good, with clear separation between the dialog and music, some of which is traditional and some modern Chinese pop music. The release contains twelve deleted scenes that flesh out some of the issues but were clearly eliminated for pacing purposes. The simplest, and most affecting, of the extra features is the time-lapse flooding of the Yangtze River, which reflects the destruction of both the landscape and the peasants' livelihood in a short, concise way. Up the Yangtze is a fascinating documentary with an excellent DVD release to complement it.
Not guilty. This is one of the most highly recommended documentaries I've seen in some time.
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