Set against the backdrop of China's Three Gorges Dam project, which aims to harness the power of the Yangtze River to help meet the country's growing need for electricity, Up the Yangtze examines the climate of political and social change in China through the lives of two young people. The project, due to be completed in 2009, is touted by the government as serving the need for more electricity, while at the same time alleviating the death toll caused when the river floods. But progress is never completely without cost; some two million people, many of them already living in extreme poverty, are being displaced by the dam as the waters rise.
Up the Yangtze focuses on two young people whose lives are being shaped by the river. Yu Shui is the daughter of a poor peasant. She dreams of going on to high school, but her family cannot afford to send her. They send Yu Shui to work on one of the tourist boats run by Farewell Cruises, a company that runs luxury cruise tours on the Yangtze River for people who want to catch one last glimpse of the mighty river as it is now, before it's changed forever. We also meet Chen Bo Yu, a spoiled only child who comes to work on the cruise ship practically overflowing in hubris.
For their cruise ship jobs, they are each given English names that the Western tourists will be comfortable with; Yu Shui becomes "Cindy" and Chen Bo Yu is christened "Jerry." Because she comes from a very poor peasant family and doesn't speak English well -- and also because she just doesn't want to be there -- Yu Shui finds life on the cruise ship to be a difficult adjustment. Chen Bo Yu, on the other hand, is so boastful and arrogant that he also finds himself largely rejected by the makeshift society of young people who work on the ship. The film follows the arcs of both of Yu Shui and Chen Bo Yu, while simultaneously charting the rising waters that are forcing their families to relocate, and the changes in the Chinese political structure as capitalism merges with communism in a bizarre hybrid of opposing philosophical ideals.
Yu Shui's family lives in a dilapidated makeshift hut on the banks of the river, where they survive by growing their own vegetables. Neither of Yu Shui's parents are educated or literate, and their worries of surviving after the move, when they'll have to pay rent, take on a sense of real urgency as the waters rise. As Yu Shui adjusts to life as a worker on the cruise ship, making friends and going shopping, her parents are forced to move their meager possessions to higher ground out of the flooding zone.
The stories of the Yu Shui and Chen Bo Yu are interesting enough by themselves, but what particularly makes Up the Yangtze a fascinating work is how filmmaker Yung Chang addresses the larger societal issues facing China today by following these young peoples' personal journeys. The cruise ship itself mirrors society, showing the young Chinese workers hanging out below deck, while the well-to-do Western tourists, there to witness the impact of the dam on the villages and cities along the Yangtze as if they're viewing some sort of bizarre anthropological zoo exhibit, keep themselves busy with the ship's fine dining and entertainment on the upper decks. The arrogance and condescension of some of the Western tourists toward the Chinese staff is cringe-inducing, and the irony that all these kids, most of whom come from families being displaced by the building of the dam, are serving Westerners on a cruise line that exists only because of the project, is not lost on the filmmaker.
Visually, the film's lush cinematography captures the beauty of the Yangtze River, with its majestic gorges, rural villages and modern cities dotting its banks. The contrasts between the natural beauty of the river against the neon lights of the modern cities, and between the poor villagers being displaced and the wealthy tourists there to witness the impact of the building of the dam, serves to emphasize the film's underlying theme of societal progress on the backs of the people who support the social structure. In China, as everywhere else, it is the poor and disenfranchised most impacted by the influx of change and progress. Up the Yangtze was picked up for distrib early in the fest, and it's well worth catching.