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.