The opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics got awfully close to raising Leni Riefenstahl from the dead. Such pageantry! Such thinly veiled militarism! China is undoubtedly on the move these days, and perhaps the best symbol of its gargantuan plans is the Three Gorges Dam, which is five times the size of Hoover Dam and, when completed, could tilt the planet on its rotational axis by turning the Yangtze River into a vast inland sea. Talk about changing the world! The human costs of the project have been off the charts, including as many as two million residents thrown out of their homes. Thousands of towns and villages have been razed, then submerged, all in the name of progress. And the water just keeps rising.
We've already gotten a look at the Three Gorges Dam in Jia Zhang-ke's quietly devastating drama Still Life. But now here's Up the Yangtze, a documentary from Chinese-Canadian filmmaker Yung Chang. And it's even more moving, if only because these are real people facing real problems. Like Jia, Chang zeroes in on two people who stand in for literally millions of others. Yu Shui, 16, is the daughter of peasants who still cling to the banks of the river, living in a hut without plumbing or electricity. And Chen Bo Yu, 19, is the son of middle-class parents who, obeying China's one-child policy, have dutifully spoiled the child and spared the rod. What brings these two together is employment on a cruise boat that takes Western tourists up and down the river.
For Yu, it's a chance to go to college someday, although right now all her salary gets sent back home to keep her family afloat. For Chen, it's a chance to milk cash-flush Westerners for everything they're worth. Life on the boat is an East-meets-West crossroads where neither side is clearly understood by the other. Employees are taught to put a good face on things - not bring up political hotspots like Northern Ireland and Israel, not use words like "old," "fat" and "pale." And they're all given English names: Yu Shui becomes Cindy, Chen Bo Yu becomes Jerry. In some ways, this is the kind of thing that happens at any tourist attraction, but Chang makes it all seem like part of a vast conspiracy to hide China's problems behind a warm, friendly smile.
The smile cracks on occasion, as when a young man working in a shop along the river, after talking a good game for a while, suddenly bursts into tears and admits that the common people don't have a chance in the new China. We need no proof of that, of course, having spent ample time with Yu's parents, whose innate dignity doesn't quite keep their heads above water. Up the Yangtze plays like a drama, so skillfully shot and edited as to make you wonder whether these are candid moments we're seeing or Nanook of the North-like re-enactments. Ultimately, it doesn't matter. Chang is taking us behind the scenes, beyond the opening and closing ceremonies and straight at that warm, friendly smile, which, from the inside, seems closer to a frown.