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Up the Yangtze: A Surreal Journey To Modernity

Review: Up the Yangtze – A Surreal Journey Toward Modernity

Scoop Review: Auckland International Film Festival

By Natasha Burling

Up the Yangtze takes us on the surreal journey of China’s unfaltering drive towards modernity with two teenagers affected in different ways by their nation’s ambition. The Three Gorges River is set to be flooded to create the world’s largest hydroelectric power station, displacing two million people in the process.

Inhabiting two different worlds of this gargantuan country, Yu Shui and Chen Bo Yu go to work on the Farewell Tours; river cruises designed to give tourists one last chance to see the soon-to-be-submerged towns and villages along the Yangtze.

Click to enlarge

Photo credit: Jonathan Chang.

Yu Shui is shy, naïve and has rarely left her family’s ramshackle hut on the banks of the Yangtze. Her family eek out a living growing crops but the impending flooding of their home and land mean they have no choice but to send Yu Shui to work on a river boat.

The teenager begrudgingly leaves her humble home and ambitions of going to high school, with the accusing: “You’re not a real mother!”

Conceited only child Chen Bo Yu is excited about the prospect of his new career on the boat and assures his friends over vodka shots at a karaoke bar that he will look after them if they ever need anything.

China’s execution of the flooding is precise and markers indicate the expected dates of rising water levels. Apart from a few small grumblings about lack of compensation for loss of homes and land, the Chinese are resigned to the initiative; saying it is necessary for their country’s progress.

One antique dealer says he must sacrifice his small family for the large family of China but weeps when he recalls the harshness of corrupt officials and the suffering of the “common people”.

Tour guides from the river cruises show English-speaking visitors around the brand new “relocatee” houses. One tourist’s observation that not everyone along the river is as happy as the people who will live there, is met with an immediate, probably rehearsed: “Everyone is happy.”

Cruise boat employees have strict rules of engagement with the tourists. They mustn’t call them old, pale or fat. Comparing America and Canada or discussing serious political issues is also forbidden.

Canadian- born director Yung Chang suspends judgement to tell the remarkable story of the Yangtze’s transformation with unexpected intimacy and truthfulness.

Chang shows the many faces of this enigmatic river; families living in dire poverty, the neon lights of up-and-coming cities, soon-to-be-lost lush green forest, misty sunsets, dugout canoes and flashy cruise ships.

What is undeniably clear is that this river is on the move and, as the Farewell Cruises tourists have realised, for better or worse it will never be the same.

Director: Yung Chang
Photography: Wang Shi Qing
Editor: Hannele Halm
Music: Oliver Alary
Starring: Cindy Yu Shu, Jerry Chen Bo Yu
Festivals: Vancouver, Amsterdam Documentary 2007; Sundance 2008
In English and Mandarin with English subtitles
93 minutes
The film’s website compliments the film with maps, and historical and geographical information.


Natasha Burling is an AUT journalism student doing the Graduate Diploma in Journalism. She has lived in Colombia, France and Scotland.


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