The New China could well be the dominant power of the 21st century, but cinema frequently trains its cameras on the Old China.
The vast majority of films set in China – at least the ones we get to see – take place in medieval settings and feature heroic roles who spar while being whisked around on wires. This partly reflects the tastes of the export market and the healthy audience for martial arts films starring the likes of Jet Li or the Kung Fu Panda.
The limited perspective also proves symptomatic of the country's censorious political regime. Filmmakers can find more freedom when they make metaphorical period pieces rather than present-day critiques. Stinging capitalist attacks such as the film noir Blind Shaft tend to be the exception rather than the rule. Zhang Yimou, one of the nation's most acclaimed directors, got in trouble for his social commentary in films such as The Story of Qiu Ju and shifted focus to such thoughtful period pieces – with gravity-defying stunts – as House of Flying Daggers.
China's transformation from Maoist communism to Western-style capitalism is changing the country beyond recognition, and will have lasting repercussions for the global economy, politics and culture. (It's the major reason why gas prices are so high, for starters.) The documentary Up the Yangtze provides an invaluable service as it shows China's economic shocks from the inside out and reveals who pays the price for the country's future prosperity.
Up the Yangtze begins by recounting a civil-engineering plan of staggering scale. The Three Gorges Dam causes massive flooding of the Yangtze River, displacing about 2 million Chinese. "Imagine the Grand Canyon being turned into a Great Lake," says Canadian-Chinese director Yung Chang in voice-over.
He presents remarkable images that make his words more than hyperbole. Early in the film, we see an abandoned city by the river, and the metropolis is so huge, empty and decayed, it looks like collateral damage of an apocalypse.
Chang views China's changes through the prism of the Victoria Queen, a cruise ship that primarily shows Western travelers the sights as the rising river transforms the landscape and erases the nation that was. We see some tourists dressed preposterously in traditional Chinese robes as they coo over the size and modernity of China's cities, some of which gleam with Blade Runner neon.
The director primarily follows two teenagers who take jobs on the Victoria Queen. Bo Yu Chen comes from a middle-class family and exudes such confidence and entitlement that he's clearly ready to take the "Tiger Economy" by the tail. At one point he sings karaoke like a rock star to the ship's passengers, and you can imagine him parlaying his documentary appearance into an acting career (or at least trying to). At one point his charm earns him a handsome tip: "I'm so happy. Fuck, 30 U.S. dollars!"
We also meet Shui Yi, a studious girl who pores over workbooks in her family's hut by the encroaching river. Her ambitions for higher learning prove clearly beyond the means of her parents, who primarily live on what little food they can grow before the water consigns them to an inland village. Putting aside her dreams for her family's sake, Yi submits to drudgery on the ship.
The cruise ship's employees receive lessons in assimilation to provide customer service to Westerners. Their bosses provide them with American names, turning Chen into "Jerry" and Yi into "Cindy," in a touch that evokes the renaming of American immigrants at Ellis Island. One supervisor acknowledges that 20 years ago, Westerners would be called "foreign devils," but English is clearly the language of global commerce. Employees learn how to cater to the different nationalities – "Don't call anyone old, pale or fat" – while tour guides seem to parrot the party line when they minimize the country's growing pains.
Between scenes of Chen and Yi on the ship, Up the Yangtze interviews people turned into "relocatees" by the river project, or otherwise facing lives turned upside-down by the new ways. Some interviews build to strikingly raw emotions. Yi's mother tearfully confesses her shame at having to exploit her daughter. A shopkeeper settling into his new village breaks down on camera: "It's hard being a human, but being a common person in China is even more difficult. ... When we had to move, we were dragged and beaten!" You not only wonder how Chang captured such unguarded moments on film, but whether he had to sneak them past government officials.
For most of the film, Yi proves to be a withdrawn subject for the documentary. She doesn't talk much on camera, although she weeps at one point while washing dishes. Accurately or otherwise, we read despair in her silence, although she gradually opens up while shopping for friends.
Her parents, meanwhile, suffer the fate of agrarian workers in a dawning industrialized nation. At one point the father carries an enormous wardrobe on his back as they move. A shattering series of dissolves shows the river rising ever higher until the family hut completely submerges out of view.
Up the Yangtze equates China's progress with a rising tide, one that can drown its citizens just as easily as it can lift them up.