China`s Three Gorges Dam seems to provide never-ending fascination for Western documentary filmmakers. It`s sheer size the largest hydroelectric dam in the world the displacement of nearly 1.5 million people during its construction, and its huge negative impact on the local environment has been a magnet for liberal-minded filmmakers who want to make some point or other about man`s need to transform nature. In 2007, the dam made a dramatic appearance in Jennifer Baichwal`sManufactured Landscapes, and now it`s the central focus of the NFB`s critically praised Up the Yangtze, although it only makes a cameo appearance in this film.
The Yangtze River is to China what the Amazon is to Brazil, the St. Laurence is to Canada and the Nile is to Egypt the central spine of the country. The Three Gorges is the stunningly beautiful mid-section where towering cliffs drop dramatically into the water and provides spectacular views of the majestic river. The Yangtze, however, is also known as the river of death. Its annual floods used to kill hundreds, if not thousands, of poor river fishermen and farmers. A flood in 1954 left 300,000 dead. As recently as 1998, it was 3,000 with $20 billion in damages.
Chinese leaders as far back as 1918 have envisioned damning the Yangtze in order to control the killing floodwaters. Given the 100 years of turmoil that was 20th-century China history, the actual work on the mammoth project did not begin until 1994. It is mostly done now, but with six more underground generators still needing to be installed, the dam will not be entirely complete until some time in 2011. The Yangtze River Reservoir, which stretches for miles upstream from the dam, was akin to transforming the Grand Canyon into a lake.
Chinese-Canadian filmmaker Yung Chang arranged with a Western cruise line on the Yangtze to document a trip through what was left of the Three Gorges section before it was flooded completely. In Up the Yangtze, he focuses on two employees, Yu Shui (Cindy), a petite, shy girl from a poor peasant family who works below decks in the kitchen, and the brash Chen Bo Yu (Jerry), an educated waiter from a middle-class family, who gets to mingle with the tourists. The Gosford Park-style upstairs/downstairs dichotomy allows the director to comment on the hopes and dreams of 21st-century China, and how the residents along the shore of the Yangtze feel about being displaced by the controversial dam project.
Although Up the Yangtze is a fascinating, well-made documentary, director Chang, in his feature debut, commits a rookie error and tries to cram too much in. There is a lot going on here, as he attempts to juggle several large themes the ecological impact of the dam, the profound social changes in China, the transformation of its cities, the obsequious pandering to “ugly” American and European tourists by the Chinese crew (Jerry is instructed not to call them “fat” or “pale”) while trying to tie the smaller story of Cindy and Jerry together. Their story arc is full of unrealized potential. It perhaps could have been explored better and to greater effect in a more formal dramatic context.