Tourists on sampans in the Lesser Three Gorges on the Yangtze river.
'Up the Yangtze' director 'conflicted' about his project
By N.P. Thompson
At once overwhelming and outrageous, the documentary “Up the Yangtze” charts the excursion of a cruise ship filled with wealthy, non-Asian sightseers who are making a “farewell tour,” along the banks of cities being flooded by Three Gorges Dam. (For most of these passengers, this “farewell” marks their first experience in China.) The movie, however, spends as much time below deck as above, getting to know the Chinese youth employed by the cruise line as dishwashers and wait staff. Yung Chang, the 30-year-old Montreal-based filmmaker, who went on the cruise in 2002, saw a parallel to the ship’s class divide in Robert Altman’s “Gosford Park,” another story of the working poor literally under the feet of the rich.
Chang’s movie (his debut feature) “began as a statement on tourists,” but “very quickly became something bigger than that. It had to go beyond the guardrails of this Disneyland cruise trip.” Specifically, “Up the Yangtze” goes on shore for an unsparing—one could even argue invasive—look at a family living in dire poverty near the river’s edge. The father is a laborer who can’t read or write. His daughter, Yu Shui, reluctantly goes to work on the cruise ship to help with her parents’ relocation expenses. Along with so many millions of others, the advent of rising waters brought on by the dam will displace them. By the film’s end, a two-minute segment of time-lapse photography shows the gradual, six-week submergence of the hut they lived in. Farmland of dense foliage turns into islands, until only water remains. And the ship sails on.
Technically, Chang has made a stunning film. He not only has a rigorous visual imagination, he has a great cinematographer Wang Shi Qing to bring off exquisite wide-angle shots of the cloud-drenched, mountain-edged river. The Yangtze often has an unhealthy pallor of drab green or muddy brown; nonetheless these images have a fierce beauty. Even more impressive are the opening and closing sequences of the dam by morning and by night. The filmmakers contrast massive structures of steel and concrete with the narrowness of the canal; they zoom past the barnacle-encrusted hull of a ship; then moving out into the open, there are slow tracking shots past columns, barges, and steamers in the pearl gray morning light that are nothing less than ravishing to behold.
What’s more, Chang mixes in the sounds of a foghorn and industrial clangor with composer Olivier Alary’s mesmeric score for saxophone and strings, and the marriage of all these images and textures of slate, iron, metal, and stone with Alary’s fluttering, insinuating lines (written using the Ethiopian scale) creates one of the most vivid senses of place a movie has ever captured. When Chang returns to Three Gorges after dark, both the water surface and steel doors are bathed in red light. The camera slowly advances forward into the canal. The red lights of the portal give the illusion of stretching into infinity. The ending seemed to me to be almost a color equivalent to Antonioni’s “The Eclipse,” an unpopulated world where the people we’ve been watching have ceased to matter in the face of machinery.
Yet it isn’t all visual poetry. Chang doesn’t shy away from jarring encounters on either ship or shore, including moments that seem painfully xenophobic. For instance, a gray-haired, white male lounge singer entertains the tourists with a song that begins, “It’s so easy to learn Chinese-y, it’s as easy as A-B-C.”
“It’s a cringe-inducer,” Chang says of “Ni Hao is Hello,” adding that although the singer-pianist has been on the river for 20 years, the phrases he’s learned for his lounge act are the only words he can say in Mandarin. What begins mortifyingly, however, becomes one of the best-directed sequences in “Up the Yangtze.” As the performer leads the passengers in a sing-along, the camera roves the hold below where the young workers, sneaking cigarettes or primping before a mirror, live in cramped quarters where their red lingerie, dangling from hooks, lends the only burst of color to their surroundings. “I like the idea that we’re in the bowels of the ship as he’s singing the song and rising up,” Chang told me, “climbing up the stairs for the training process to begin.”
The training process, or “University of Life” as the main instructor calls it, gives the documentary its sharpest social observances. Here, the young workers Yu Shui and Chen Bo Yu are re-christened “Cindy” and “Jerry” for the ease of Western tourists who could not possibly pronounce their Chinese names. Furthermore, they’re handed such indispensable advice as, “Don’t compare Canada to the United States,” never chat up passengers about Quebec independence and “avoid the issue of Northern Ireland.”
Out of these scenes, Jerry, a tall, handsome young man who is both bartender and bellhop, emerges as the movie’s unofficial star. Recruited by the cruise line not only for his facility with English, but for his good looks, Jerry has a superlative moment early on when he announces, “I don’t want a flat and tasteless life,” as a prelude to downing vodka shots in a karaoke bar with other pretty youths.
An east vs. west, rich vs. poor tension runs throughout “Up the Yangtze.” It surfaces in the oddest ways, such as a Chinese cruise director named Campbell Hur telling his Western patrons, “You can call me Campbell Soup or Ben Hur, either way.” His remark made me wildly uncomfortable. When I suggested that Campbell was playing into the ersatz authenticity of the tourist experience, Chang disagreed: “He’s an amazing guy.” A former porter who worked his way up the ladder, learning English, Campbell, “seems to have, in his own way, figured it out—how to work with Westerners and that idea of language being a carrier to lift you into the next level of economic wealth.”
NWAW: One of the most disturbing sequences in the movie, even on seeing it a second time, was the scene where you’re filming an antique dealer in his shop. He’s talking about the changes brought about by the Three Gorges project; initially, he’s stoic, but then he breaks down into sobs, and we get the full-on impact of his tears and his spittle. He says, “It’s hard being a human, but being a common person in China is even more difficult,” because there’s “no money to bribe the officials.” In showing him this way, were you at all concerned with being—or appearing to be—emotionally exploitative?
Yung Chang: I don’t think so. That moment really came out of nowhere. To have that confession from this man, as opposed to being emotionally exploitative, I felt that it was quite the opposite. It was a condition shared by many people, and to have someone reveal that feeling is almost unprecedented. You don’t see that kind of emotion from a Chinese man. Especially not from someone weathered by living as a peasant. To have him express that openly is crucial to share with you and with an audience; I think if we didn’t have that scene, we would have one less layer of understanding. I don’t even remember what I asked—it was a very simple trigger that caused him to emote.
NWAW: After he regains his composure, you cut from a close-up of him to a medium shot that includes the shelves off to his right. Prominently on display is a bust of Chairman Mao.
Chang: There’s another irony to my interview with this man. When I found him, I wanted to include him in the film because his shop sells the cast away items of relocatees. And when I saw this bust of Mao, and the iconography around his shop—Mao all over the place—I got a sense of, maybe, this archaic idea of the past, of this man Mao and now he’s in the shop of an antique dealer, so that all those socialist ideals of a Communist China are now something for tourists. To go back to that question of exploiting the subject, as a documentary filmmaker, my position is to go out on a limb and capture these really awkward moments, and in some ways it can feel exploitative, but what we’re getting at are greater emotional truths.
NWAW: One shot I found especially intriguing was in the nighttime footage of Chongqing. The city is all lit up by neon, and you have a shop window with a Lancôme ad on the right half of the display. It’s side by side with a pair of Chinese flags on the left. I know what associations that has in my mind, but I was wondering what associations it has in yours.
Chang: That image is almost like a painting, in a way, but on a very basic level, those contrasts are everywhere. Having an outsider perspective about what’s happening in the Mainland allowed me to see in every angle some sort of contradiction. The communist flags next to a Lancôme model, I think, says a lot…
NWAW: It’s a painted woman with her eyes closed.
Chang (Laughing): Tell me your interpretation.
NWAW: It implies that here is a great nation that can be bought and sold like a high-priced commodity.
Chang: My position in making this film—and I hope it comes through in the movie—is very conflicted. I wanted a more nuanced look at China, as opposed to labeling things black and white or talking about progress as if it were horrible. You can make that opinion through this film, but on the flip side, the Chinese perspective takes into account that the Western world spent 275 years of industrialization, to the point where the West ravaged the environment. For the Chinese, having gone through the Cultural Revolution, the Great Famine, the Great Leap Forward, and all of these traumatizing moments in Chinese history, and to be able to say, “Why can’t China have the same commercial opportunities now,” is very important. In the West, we can be reactionary about all this change happening there, but we did put ourselves through the same thing.
NWAW: I wanted to ask you about “Jerry,” or Chen Bo Yu. The scene where he’s holding up his dollar bills to the camera—his tips from white tourists—and saying “Yippee!” Are you judging him a little bit? He likes to make money, which, for a kid his age (19), is perfectly natural. Yet you’re letting the camera roll while he goes on cynically about the passengers who aren’t generous tippers, or as he phrases it, “What the ---- do I do with two yuan?”
Chang: The judging process emerges after the fact. With Yu Shui, as I was shooting the scenes, it was more cinéma-vérité. She doesn’t look into the camera; she’s not very interactive that way. She’s shy, and we don’t hear a lot from her in the film, only through her physical expression, whereas Chen Bo Yu was completely the opposite. No matter how hard I tried to say, “Don’t look into the camera!” he would be very interactive, and so you get that performative aspect of this guy, which, at some point, I tossed my hands in the air and said, “Okay, that’s him!” He can be the guy who dances the dance with the camera. So in the “tip scene,” you let him talk, and that’s how you get that side of him. I made a decision to put that segment in, because it’s what he’s going through as a burgeoning capitalist, beginning to pick-up on the corruption of the dollar. It can be considered judgmental, but that moment is necessary for the “arc” of his character.
NWAW: The other thing about Jerry—when he sings the Giorgio Moroder song “Love You for 10,000 Years” to the passengers on the ship. And he comes across as totally insincere, and he’s straining for the high notes. But does he think he’s singing it with conviction?
Chang: His hero is Andy Lau. For him to be able to sing this song (that Lau has performed) for an audience was important. He felt like he was Andy Lau when we were filming him. It felt very important that we were there, and that he was in the spotlight, so that moment…you know, you gotta have a karaoke moment. I had two in my film, but I think karaoke moments are kind of melancholic, in a way, in Chinese film.
Chang: Have you gone to see karaoke?
NWAW: No. Only on film, never in person.
Chang: Really? Okay, well, I’ll tell you a little about my experience in karaoke environments. You go into this boxlike room—I’m talking about the Asian karaoke—and you sit with your friends and you just sing songs. There’s no communication between you; you’re just focused on this television and a selection of music. It can be fun in the beginning, but after a while it becomes quite melancholy—because of what you’re singing and the horrible videos that play on the television, it’s almost somber—you’re inverting into your own world.
Up the Yangtze screens at the Landmark Varsity June 27-July3.