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Up The Yangtze

Does anyone doubt that we are, for better or worse, at the beginning of the Chinese Century? That country’s headlong determination to modernize is ineluctably symbolized by the Three Gorges Dam, the gigantic hydroelectric project will create a reservoir 375 miles long, displacing by some estimates two million people, many of them country people with no desire to be yanked into the modern world.

This documentary by Canadian filmmaker Yung Chang centers on Yu Shui, the 16-year-old daughter of one such family. Subsistence farmers who can barely feed themselves, they are unable to send their oldest child to college, at least not if they expect to educate her younger siblings as well. The parents decide to put Yu Shui to work so that she can earn money for her education. Her job is on one of the boats that conduct so-called “Farewell Tours,” ferrying tourists (mostly Americans) up the Yangtze River for a last look at it before the dam (to be completed next year) turns much of it into a lake.

Yu Shui’s story anchors the film, but given a subject of this scope you can hardly blame Chang for becoming distracted by tangents. She is contrasted with another ship worker, Jerry, who is as cynical as she is innocent, eager to grab all he can. A tour guide’s proud display of the houses into which displaced farmers will be moved (“Air conditioning! Color TV!”) is contrasted with villagers protesting the amount of relocation expenses they have been allocated (about $45). All the while, the waters continue to rise, meeting markers that have been set up as if to prove its inevitability.

Up the Yangtze doesn’t touch on the central reasons why many feel the Three Gorges Dam is a colossal mistake, the environmental issues and the loss of so much history and culture. It’s easy to run up a list of themes the movie might have taken but not in following its own contemplative and seemingly meandering path. One comes away from it feeling unable to grasp the complexities of the dam, and of modern China, an inability that stands as the film’s success.

Up the Yangtze will be screened at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery at 7pm on Friday night. Filmmaker Yung Chang will be present.

m. faust

Watch the trailer for Up The Yangtze

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