Monday, July 14, 2008

"Up the Yangtze" is a social documentary on Chinese society displaced by a new dam


Up the Yangtze” is a strong social documentary about China written and directed by Yung Chang. The film was produced by National Geographic, PBS Point of View, and Quebec, Canada broadcasting and the National Film Board of Canada, as well as Eye Steel Film in China. It is distributed by Zeitgeist (Germany).

The film documents a “pleasure” luxury cruise up the Yangtze by wealthier tourists from the United States, Canada, Britain, Germany and other western countries. The cruise operates in the area above the Three Gorges Dam and Sandouping, which is being flooded to a depth of over 500 feet, to form the largest hydroelectric power plant in the world. Politically, this project is very important for China because it wants to prove that it can generate economic growth in a responsible and renewable manner as well as by consuming more oil and coal.

The social impact of the film comes from the examination of the lives of some families who will be displace by the lake, as well as the young people who go to work on the boat. The families are poor. One is shown living in a ramshackle clapboard tin squatter house, next to livestock and poultry (and a most likeable kitten). The proximity of residences of poor people to farm animals increases the risk of mutation of diseases like avian influenza. The father in the family chides the oldest girl, who wants to college and become a doctor or engineer. He says she may have to go to work to help support her younger siblings. (That sounds counter to the "one child" policy!) Later the family will painfully carry its furniture up a birm to a town where it will live, but where it will need money to buy food.

The young people are treated like military recruits when they go to work on the cruise ship. The cadre mention that they are often only children and “the apple of their parents’ eye” and therefore “spoiled,” because of China’s “one child per family” policy. The workers live in bunked quarters similar to what the Navy would have on a ship, in conditions of forced intimacy. One girl cries at the “hardship” of working what looks like side sink duty in military “kitchen police”. A 19 year old boy works in a bar and socializes with German teens, and then says that he doesn’t like to work with very old people because they don’t tip much. He is fired on camera later after his three month probation and told to leave the ship, because of his surly and over-inflated ego, which is particularly objectionable in Chinese or Confucian culture. (The boss goes to the trouble to mention that the teen's behavior is particularly objectionable in an only child.) The workers are told not to discuss politics (particularly Quebec separatism, the IRA, or royalty or monarchy) around guests.

The photography of the gorge, the dam, the bridges, and the towns and cities (much of Sandouping must be razed and moved) is striking. Much of the time the view is obscured by fog or smog, giving the landscapes an impressionistic look. There are some urban shots which appear to be of Chongqing, up river, and the subject of Ted Koppel’s recent Discovery Documentary “The People’s Republic of Capitalism.” (link to my review).

This is a good place to mention the 5 minute short film “Aging in China” from the AARP, directed by Nick Francis, discussed in more detail at this link on my retirement blog. It deals with the Confucian value of "filial piety."

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