Under Three Gorges
Yung Chang’s 2007 documentary, Up the Yangtze, follows the lives of two young people that take jobs on a luxury cruise ship catering to Westerners on the Yangtze River in central China. The film follows the pair, Yu “Cindy” Shui and Chen “Jerry” Bo Yu, separately for some time after leaving their homes as river levels rise behind the Three Gorges Dam in 2006.
Yu’s family is portrayed in an almost stereotypical fashion as poor, illiterate peasants living below the flood level. Yu’s father is skeletal, hard-working, good-natured. They live among their domesticated animals and flea-ridden pets in the mud without electricity in a shanty next to their small field on the flood plain, the dirty, brick block housing waiting for them above.
Chen is shown partying at a karaoke bar with his friends the night before he starts work on the boat. He toasts to long friendship, and promises to be generous with his success. We never see his home or family.
Chen is waggish, apparently of some means, and good looking. His English is exceptional among his friends. Yu is quiet, brooding, with a pitiful slouch. She studies in the evenings by dim candlelight shared with the rest of her family. She wishes she could go to high school and thinks she eats better than most kids in town.
Yu’s mother tells Yu to spend what she likes on food and a little on herself, but to send the rest of her pay home so that the family can eat and continue schooling her younger sister and brother, because they’ll soon have no way of earning money. All of this she says from the other side of a partition, anguishing tearfully.
As the water rises, Yu’s father is unable to grow vegetables and goes to work breaking rock and laying brick for the future shore above them. He and her mother strain precariously, step-by-step, up the steep rocks with large pieces of furniture and parts of their home on their backs, bypassers above seemingly frozen in suspense, but no one lending a hand.
There are small forays into the area surrounding the river visited by foreign tourists. Tour guides parrot prepared descriptions in broken English to concerned vacationers inspecting model homes for the relocatees.
An interview with a kitsch dealer somewhere along the river turns emotional when some kind of authority causes a vague disturbance near his shop. An old man is dragged by hands and feet to the curb. Set on his haunches he grips the pant legs of one of his evictors with large hands at the end of limp, impotent arms. “It’s hard to be human, but it’s even more difficult to be a common person in China,” the dealer says, failing to hold back bitter tears.
“An American and a Chinese are riding in the back seat of a limousine together, and the American says let’s go right. The Chinese says, okay but let’s put on the left turn signal,” the charismatic cruise ship emcee jokes privately. His humor is accentuated by a wide, toothy smile with a conspicuous gap top, front. “It doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white,” he adds, “only that it is good at catching rats.”
Only a few moments of narration are offered by the filmmaker in an dream-like, nostalgic voice comparing his experiences in modern China with the memory of the unrecounted tales of his expatriot grandfather over striking imagery.
It seems like a rather narrow view of life there at that time. Only these two lives, in this one situation, with periscope views of Western tourist stops, but it feels honest. The cinematography is gorgeous - stark, muddy river scenes separated by linened dining rooms and polished urban ones, Western tourists appearing almost as paid extras.
Chen is bold and perhaps overconfident, sometimes euphoric after large tips from customers. He isn’t very friendly with the staff and is let go after his probationary period with some harsh criticism.
Yu has a tough time, but her coworkers are very thoughtful and helpful. She gets over a rough start, accepts help, endures, makes friends and improves her posture. Her family visits the boat. Her manager invites them aboard for an awkward tour and pep talk about Yu’s work. She also visits her riverside home, and her outlook seems to be improving. She appears to genuinely miss her home and parents.
Yu’s parents tour Three Gorges Dam with the cruise ship staff. “Our country is stronger and more prosperous,” says a bystander. “It’s good for our country, but I don’t think it will be much help to me,” says Yu’s father distantly.
At one point Yu’s younger brother stands in the mud on the riverbank staring at a sandal floating upside down in the current. Ants skitter on the bottom of the shoe, like the Chinese along the Yangtze, one more generation struggling to survive forces beyond their control. In the end, Yung Chang’s camera sits high above Yu’s home on the riverbank. As weeks or months pass in minutes, her home, her family, disappear beneath the gray-brown ripples of the Yangtze. Like the film, it has to be seen to be appreciated.