A Harrowing Journey Up the Yangtze

A new documentary takes an unforgettable journey through a vanishing countryside

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Movie poster for Up the YangtzeIn his new documentary Up the Yangtze, Canadian filmmaker Yung Chang begins with a sight that inspires a feeling of horror and claustrophobia. We drift along through a forbidding passage, as if through the gates of hell, toward a vast, mist-shrouded body of water.


As this cruise liner moves from the “New Hong Kong,” Congqing, into Asia's longest river, Yung explains that he dreamed of visiting the region where his grandparents grew up. He wanted to see those age-old farming and fishing villages along the river bank.


But that Yangtze doesn’t exist anymore.


Due to the Chinese government’s installation of the Three Gorges Dam, the largest hydroelectric project in the world, Chang found instead a culture in transition –– and a landscape's annihilation. China's old, agrarian world is vanishing before our eyes. Fishing villages dissolve like so many sandcastles in the waters raised by the dam, violently displacing more than two million people.


Yung gets to the broken heart of a dying culture by conveying the impact of the dam on the lives of two individuals affected by, and participating in, the government's vision for “progress.”


Sixteen-year-old Yu Shui is the daughter of impoverished subsistence farmers who are about to watch their home engulfed by the flood. Since she can’t afford to pursue her dream of a high school education, she goes to work on the “Farewell Tours,” put on by Victoria Cruises, where she suffers a front-row seat to the destruction. She struggles to learn English, to put on a happy face for sightseeing Westerners, and to build a dam strong enough to hold back her grief.


Her coworker Chen Bo Yu is an ambitious 19-year-old whose conscience is overrun by aggressive opportunism and contempt for those who have not been blessed with his urban middle-class privileges. While his selfishness earns him a lecture from his supervisor, it's clear that his attitude will make this “little emperor” a success in the new China. He already earns more than his whole family.


Chang catches tourists in moments of appalling insensitivity and ignorance as well. One of these representative capitalists generously tips a young Chinese cruise worker, saying: “I congratulate you. You were less obtrusive than I thought you'd be." She’d apparently prefer to see China without having to reckon with real Chinese people. Another lady gropes for a word to describe the Chinese: She settles on “funny.” Meanwhile, a lounge singer leads them in a sing-along: “It’s so easy / to learn Chinese-y.”


Troubling scenes of hardship are starkly contrasted with scenes of stunning beauty from Beijing's Wang Shi Qing. Some images seem to come from science fiction –– a futuristic, neon-lit metropolises flourishes near the ghastly, hollowed out hive of a “ghost city.”


Meanwhile, far from the insulated cruise ship, a shopkeeper sobs, relating how government officials have beaten those villagers who showed any reluctance to cooperate. "It's hard to be a human being," he says through his tears. "It's even harder to be common in China."'


Up the Yangtze is available on DVD from Zeitgeist Films.


A Chat With Chris Keller


Up the Yangtze was featured at October's FilmFaith&Justice film festival, hosted by The Other Journal and Mars Hill Graduate School.


Festival director and journal editor Chris Keller says, “We wanted to bring traditions of Christian theology, and of Christian care for the marginalized, into the light. We wanted to do this in Seattle, a city which has a heavy atheist vibe, because in this age of the new atheism, where evangelical Christianity has this bad rap of being anti-intellectual, we wanted to show that there’s a huge resource here to resist modern issues of injustice. And we wanted people of faith to become more educated about international issues of social justice and human rights abuses. We want them to feel a draw towards getting more involved in these issues.”


The film festival is just part of The Other Journal’s larger vision for encouraging people of faith to engage the culture around them in meaningful and inspiring ways.


“Over the last five years,” says Keller, “we’ve wanted to talk about theology in a way that has an actual narrative attached to it, and real life implications. We can talk all we want about issues of justice, faith, or God — but if we talk about those things propositionally, they’re just fundamental exercises and we never really get to the gritty realities of what those things mean. [Through film], we’re able to take our audience into important issues through narratives in a way that’s nuanced, in a way that’s paced so everyone slows down and leave their anxieties and lives behind. We go into a different world just for a small time. It’s not like we sat around and said, ‘Oh yeah, we need a film festival.’ We kind of stumbled backwards into this idea. But we’ve found that it’s an excellent way to set the stage so that these types of conversations occur.”

By Jeffrey Overstreet (jeffreyo@spu.edu)

Photos Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films