This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: August 12, 2008 - The new documentary "Up the Yangtze," now playing at the Tivoli, tells the human side of the largest hydroelectric project in the world, China's Three Gorges Dam. It is written and directed by a Chinese-Canadian, Yung Chang, whose grandfather told him stories of the old China. Though a real eye-opener, it falls well short of its potential.
The Three Gorges project has displaced more than 2 million people. The documentary is at its best when it focuses on one very poor family. Before the dam, the father of three made a living carrying baggage in a city that is now under water. Now the family lives in a ramshackle hovel by the water's edge with neither electricity nor running water, making ends meet by growing vegetables. Their eldest child, a daughter, wants to go to high school, but there is no money. The family decides to send her to work.
The work she finds is on one of the cruise boats taking tourists on a "farewell tour" of the beautiful Three Gorges section of the Yangtze before it is completely flooded by the new dam. The director/narrator/writer remarks that the Western tourists seem to be looking for an old China that is now gone. Meanwhile, the overwhelmed 14-year-old is renamed "Cindy" and put to work in the kitchen. The contrast between the Western tourists on the luxurious boat and the life experience of Cindy is sad indeed. The camera records her sobbing over a sink as her supervisor gives instruction and encouragement.
A fascinating aspect of this documentary is how it captures Confucianism alive and well in China. The cities may be modern, but supervisors on the boat still stress duty and character as they deal with their teenage charges. Another focus of the documentary is a 19-year-old named renamed "Jerry" - a young man as brash and overconfident as Cindy is meek and terrified. An indulged only child, Jerry finds the boat a bit restrictive, while Cindy sleeps for the first time in her life in a bed with sheets.
The government gives a convenient version of relocation to the foreign tourists, showing them some apartments built for the displaced. Meanwhile, Cindy's family moves to higher ground: a concrete building without electricity or water. In one agonizing scene, Cindy's father carries an enormous cabinet on his back up a hill over large rocks. He is injured in a construction work accident but is given no care. They remark that in their new home they will now have to pay for water and vegetables.
One shopkeeper puts a brave face on relocation at first but ends up in tears. He says that seeking relocation compensation may result in beatings by corrupt officials. Two million people robbed of home and livelihood is a lot of "collateral damage," and "Up the Yangtze" gives us a glimpse.
The final shot points to what is missing in this documentary. The camera lingers for what seems like five minutes on a concrete lock on the river. Why is this the final image in the film? The camera often lingers pointlessly. Shots of the dam itself are less than overwhelming. Having marveled at the Hoover Dam, I was hoping to see more of this engineering marvel. Perhaps, having shown us the human cost of the dam, Yung Chang doesn't want to risk impressing us.