Cast and 'extras:' Participants in documentary 'Up the Yangtze' as well as tourists traveling through the region smile for Yung Chang's camera. (Photo courtesy Zeitgeist Films)

'Up the Yangtze' with Yung Chang

Judy Stone June 6, 2008

It is difficult not to be awed by the staggering figures that increase every day: more than 67,000 dead, five million homeless, 23,000 missing, more than 240,000 hospitalized, 10,000 children buried in the rubble of unsafe schools.

Now there is added poignancy to the question "whither China?" that is posed in Up the Yangtze, a superb documentary that examines the surreal changes taking place and the role the controversial Three Gorges Dam may play in that country’s future. The film played in Sundance and at the San Francisco International, and it opens at Bay Area theaters this week .

The glorious benefits to come with a future dam are not exactly what Mao envisioned in his poem "Swimming," which concludes: "The mountain goddess if she is still there will marvel at a world so changed."

Marvel, indeed. After a first enjoyable viewing of Yung Chang’s acclaimed production at SFIFF, when I was amazed at the mountainous beauty along the river’s shoreline, I was shocked when watching it again after the horrendous 8.0 earthquake on May 12 and the subsequent deadly tremors in Sichuan Province in southwest China. The documentary’s young "stars"—timid 16 year-old "Cindy" and arrogant "Jerry", 19—may have emerged as the future’s hope, but the real hope lies in China’s traditional endurance, etched on her father’s wan face, wrinkled beyond belief after struggling to survive years of unpredictable calamities.

None of the participants in the film have been harmed by the earthquake, Chang reported in a recent e-mail which forwarded an article that asked, "Is the Three Gorges Dam to blame?" It noted that although the Wenchuan earthquake was the result of tectonic stresses, "experts are concerned that the filling of the Three Gorges dam’s enormous reservoir may have induced or exacerbated the earthquake."

The idea that dam construction could harness recurrent floods and generate electricity for a booming economy goes back to dynasties that ruled long before the days of Sun Yat-sen, Chang noted when he was here for the festival. Although he was born in Toronto and lives in Montreal, he and his brother who is studying Chinese medicine in Beijing, always felt a keen connection to China. Growing up, they listened to many stories from their grandparents and others who had to leave China because of the hardships they faced.

Being a landowner was dangerous for their paternal grandparent and their maternal grandfather, who was from a progressive, westernized family that had started a church in Beijing. "Unfortunately," Chang, 30, said, "He couldn’t bring with him his mother or his brother. So growing up we always felt that we were lucky they got out, but a real sense of guilt remained about the families they couldn’t bring with them."

However, "Things have changed so much in China that my relatives there are doing quite well. It’s unbelievable that their livelihoods have improved so much even though it’s still under a communist regime, what they call capitalism with Chinese characteristics." I think that kind of order or structure is comforting to Chinese. Generally speaking, people are very happy with any kind of reform happening now, but that is a very generalized statement. I think there are people who fall through the cracks of progress so there’s always good and bad. That’s what I encountered in making the movie."

The idea for the documentary occurred to Chang in 2002 when he went on one of the so-called Farewell cruises along the Yangtze with his parents and his maternal grandfather, a Taipei resident who is heard singing in the film. The cruise’s aim was to offer tourists the chance to visit the area before it is flooded by the Three Gorges Dam, but for Chang it presented the opportunity to show something of the lives of the cruise workers who come from the Yangtze area.

Also, "There was this sense of an apocalyptic journey something out of Heart of Darkness,’" Chang wrote in a program note. "It’s a strange landscape of chaos and decay. It’s very ghostlike along the river hazy and grey and difficult to see long distances. Then we visited the Ghost City itself Fengdu famous in Chinese mythology as the site of the Gates of Hell. In my mind, the Three Gorges Dam became the Gates of Hell."

The construction would result in more than one million displaced people—some with and many more without compensation. The exodus took place after the abandonment and/or rebuilding of 1200 villages and two major towns. Meanwhile, the project became riddled with embezzlement and corruption.

Chang found his two featured workers Yu Shui and Chen Bo Yu, re-named "Cindy" and "Jerry" for the benefit of the foreign tourists, as he observed and participated in the Victoria Cruises recruitment efforts to sign up workers in the area’s schools.

He discovered Cindy, her younger sister and brother who was in a meningitis-related coma, living in "abject poverty" on the banks of the Yangtze near Fengdu, poverty almost incomprehensible to the Canadian director. It was surprising that the cruise managers accepted Cindy for the work force since she was below the required height and didn’t speak English, but they empathized with her family situation. Eventually the Yu family’s plight became a major element in the film. In the months between when Cindy was hired in the winter and didn’t get on the boat until summer, Chang was able to gain the confidence of her family who "realized I could act as sort of a mentor for her."

To put them at their ease, he met them initially without his crew or a camera and asked questions to get them to talk., using the so-called Meisner technique that he had learned while studying in New York. Even with the camera rolling, it encouraged the family to communicate with each other in a way they had not previously experienced. As an example, Chang cited the scene where Cindy’s mother tells the tearful girl that she doesn’t want to exploit her by sending her to work, instead of school, but their poverty gives them no choice. Chang asked the girl if she realized that her home would be flooded and they would have to move again. She didn’t know that and a conversation ensued that made Chang realize that by asking questions he could learn a great deal about the participants.

Instead of paying wages to the Yu family, Chang found other ways to help them. He bought them meat and eggs, food they could not afford, and school supplies for the younger children, soap, toothpaste and laundry detergent. After the film was finished Chang started a fund to pay for the father’s cataract operation. Most satisfying to Chang was the fact that after seeing herself in the film, Cindy was able to recognize her destiny and decided to go back to high school. He helped her pay for the rest of her tuition because although school is free, it is beyond the reach of a poor family like hers who are not legal residents. Because they came from a smaller village before it was flooded and didn’t receive the compensation given to other villagers they are considered "kind of outcasts."

As for Jerry, Chang said, "He found me. I didn’t find him. The minute he saw me in a classroom with a camera, he became part of the film. The only son of divorced parents, he lived with his middle-class grandparents and was quite spoiled.. I think that’s emblematic of many boys in China who are going through this kind of little emperor syndrome. They are sort of cocky and these are the kids who will be running the future of China. He’s a nice guy but when the camera was on, he was very self-conscious about being a certain kind of personality and as a director I decided not to interfere with his performance."

As a result of globalization, extremes of poverty and wealth along with environmental change are occurring all over the world, Chang said, "but these things are just a little more stark in China. Globalization in a way is the comment of the film and what lies ahead in the future is unknown."

In making the film, he was concerned that Cindy and Jerry "were becoming the sort of westernized personalities that didn’t have any sense of their past . However, what I also learned was that they have a deep respect for their parents and there was an innate Confucian kind of philosophy that they were unaware of but were living by. She recognized her responsibility to take care of her family and Jerry would send money back to his grandparents. I think in the long run China will define itself with a new sort of hybrid culture that combines western elements for the material things in life and also retains deep traditional values."

But don’t take his word for it. Chang says the documentary is meant to be a "provocation," aimed at raising more questions than any filmmaker has the right to answer.

And who has the wisdom to provide those answers today?