Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Up the Yangtze (EyeSteel Productions, National Film Board of Canada, PBS P.O.V., 2007)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Up the Yangtze, which I gathered from the promotional blurb (especially the comparison to a Robert Altman film) was a fiction film about the effect of the gigantic Three Gorges Dam project on the lives of the people it’s displacing. Surprise: it turned out to be a PBS P.O.V. documentary, though the comparison to Altman was apt and I also couldn’t help but think of the disastrous movie Northfork and how Up the Yangtze’s director, Yung Chang (whose opening narration mentions that he’s the grandson of a Chinese immigrant to Canada and one of the reasons he went to China was to check out the current state of the country against his grandfather’s reminiscences), got everything triumphantly right that the makers of Northfork got wrong.

The inspiration for Up the Yangtze was Chang’s visit to China in 2002 and his excursion aboard a tour boat taking a so-called “Farewell Tour” up the Yangtze River before the Three Gorges Dam is completed and floods the entire canyon, including the city of Fengdu where, according to Chinese tradition, all souls of dead people pass through the “Gates of Hell” before entering the afterlife. (The film is set mostly in and around the greater metropolitan area of Chongqing, formerly known as Chungking, which apparently is the largest city in China — not either Beijing or Shanghai, which would have been my guesses — and this incorporates Fengdu and a number of other communities which were going to be flooded by the dam and whose citizens were forced to relocate.)

The Three Gorges Dam was actually a product of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution and the desire of Mao Zedong to rejuvenate his revolution in the mid-1960’s by all manner of projects, from breaking the Chinese intelligentsia to demonstrating his own personal vitality by swimming the Yangtze (some archival footage of him doing this is shown) and promising the world’s largest dam project. Mao even wrote a poem about the project and it was set to music (a record of this song is heard in the film), and when completed the Three Gorges Dam promised to generate up to 10 percent of China’s total need for electricity. The project has been debated back and forth ever since, and Chang carefully avoids taking a position on it (most of the world’s environmentalists have declared it a disaster), instead using it to create a fascinating portrait of modern China and counterpointing two main characters, the Yu family (subsistence farmers who live in a lean-to in Fengdu and whose oldest of three children, 16-year-old daughter Yu Shui, laments that she doesn’t have the money to go to college and pursue her dreams) and 19-year-old Chen Bo Yu, only child of wealthy parents, who gets a job on one of the cruise boats but washes out after the three-year probation because of his superior attitude and says to the filmmakers (alternating between Chinese and quite good English) that his parents are well off and therefore he doesn’t need a job. (The fact that Chen Bo Yu is drop-dead gorgeous and has a killer stare that makes him look like a sort of Chinese James Dean just gives him one more reason to be arrogant.)

The film also takes a skewer to the ugly-American tourist — as when a middle-aged woman acknowledges Chen with a big tip and says she’s giving it to him because he’s been “less obtrusive” than the other waiters on the boat (I had visions of him going to his English tutor and asking, “What does ‘obtrusive’ mean?”), only to get him fired when she tells the cruise line officials that he extorted the money from her. The film is rich in quite a lot of ways; for example, it shows visually how total China’s transformation from a Communist to a capitalist country has been — the vast gaps in wealth and income are vividly dramatized and the Chinese urban environment is exactly like our own (only the presence of characters as well as alphabet in the street signs gives this away as an Asian country), down to a scene of a woman in a beauty parlor being given a makeover in the image of a model from a popular Chinese magazine that’s sort of their equivalent of Maxim. There’s even a gag in the film in which one Chinese is explaining that there’s a fork in the road with a sign saying “Road to Socialism” to the left and one saying “Road to Capitalism” to the right, and whereas an American would take the right fork, the Chinese are taking the right fork but signaling left.

Watching this film while I’m in the middle of reading Thomas Frank’s The Wrecking Crew was a profoundly depressing experience that made me wonder if maybe, like it or not, the Right is right after all and advanced capitalism represents the final flowering of human nature in all its greed, acquisitiveness and individualism — and yet there were plenty of poignant moments as well: when old man Yu is carrying a large chest on his back and Mrs. Yu offers to help, he begs off and at that moment Charles and I started laughing and I’ll bet some other people in the audience wondered why were being so tasteless — it’s a private joke between us because when Charles thinks I’ve over-burdened myself and am carrying too much, he’ll offer to help and I’ll beg off and say, in an agitated tone of voice, “I’m fine! I’m fine!” Up the Yangtze is a rich film, full of the counterpoint between tradition and modernity — and it also reminded me of Robert Caro’s biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker, and Caro’s argument that great public-works projects can be built only in a dictatorship (indeed, his “take” on Moses was that, due to his contacts and influence with the rich and powerful, he build a dictatorial fiefdom within a nominal democracy in which he had near-absolute power to build whatever he wanted to regardless of public opinion or however many people he displaced) — though Charles pointed out that Mao would never have tolerated the level of corruption associated with the Three Gorges Dam once it finally did get built, particularly the multitude of local officials who were skimming funds from it for their personal fortunes.