Up the Yangtze

February 7, 2008

Just saw the Doc Soup screening of this film last night in Toronto. 30 year-old Whitby boy Yu Chang set out to make a sardonic film about tourism in the new China, but has emerged with something far more touching and relevant.

Up the Yangtze follows a US-owned cruise ship on a “farewell tour” up China’s legendary river. The final destination: the Three Gorges Dam giga-project, which is slowly drowning the local countryside and its culture to feed the country’s growing need for power. While worth seeing for its gorgeously cinematic opening and closing sequences alone, the film’s real accomplishment is the graceful way it manages the “upstairs/downstairs” story of Yu Shui, the daughter of squatting peasant farmers who secures a job on the cruise boat. As she goes from watching the rising waters swallow her parents’ meagre livelihood to hustling for tips in tacky lounges full of white-haired North American tourists, Yu Shui (now “Cindy”) struggles to determine who she is and where her life is going. If that doesn’t sound good, then we’re doing a horrible job of describing it. Coz it is.

Up the Yangtze would be worth seeing strictly as a historical record – the snapshot of a time and place China and the rest of the world will one day look back on with great interest. Luckily, Yu Chang has given us far more than that – an intimate family portrait set against the stunningly cinematic backdrop of a drowning world. This kid is very talented indeed.

Up the Yangtze opens in Toronto tomorrow, Vancouver on February 15th, Montreal on February 22nd, and Ottawa on February 29th.

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