Yung Chang
Capturing the Truth on the Yangtze

By Jon Sufrin


Sprawled across the Yangtze River, China’s life-blood, lies a hulking mass of planned and symmetrical concrete. It’s grey, like the haze that chokes the sky, but it stands in defiant contrast to the winding river, upon whose banks cultures have flourished since antiquity. For thousands of years the river has been China’s source of sustenance, transportation, and life. Now, to feed China’s vast appetite for hydro-electricity, the Three Gorges Dam has disrupted the flow of the Yangtze and displaced millions of people. To many of its critics it is a symbol of greed. But to Yung Chang, it is a player in a morality tale.


The Montreal filmmaker was fascinated with the Yangtze as soon as he witnessed it. It was 2002, the dam was nearly completed, and the river’s fate slated by markers snaking up the gorge, measuring the increasing height of the river. It was then that Chang, the 30-year-old director of Up the Yangtze, knew there were metaphors to explore.

It’s now February 2008, and Chang has just returned from screening his film at Sundance, a celebrity-soaked “pseudo-Indie festival,” as he puts it. The Chinese-Canadian filmmaker is all the rage right now. Up the Yangtze opened to record-breaking box office sales at Cumberland cinemas in Toronto, and it won best Canadian documentary at the Vancouver International Film Festival. He’s being rushed around by his publicist, going from interview to interview. Not even a cultural Canadian documentary can escape the grasp of capitalism, it seems.

He’s just spoken with The Naked News; they ask him for a catch phrase to describe his film. “It’s like The Love Boat meets Apocalypse Now,” he says. He’s charming in a cultured kind of way, with a knack for glimpsing literary and mythological allusions nearly everywhere, and this is no doubt part of his appeal. But there was something different about making Up the Yangtze that Chang didn’t feel in his first documentary, Earth to Mouth. Chang knew he was being guided by something primal, and the result is a film that connects with people.

“You know when you really want to embark on something when you have that . . . I can’t describe
it . . . an uncontrollable wrenching feeling,” he says. “I guess that’s the spark of inspiration. I had that going into Up the Yangtze.”

The film is at once a meditation on the new China and a look into the lives of two cruise ship workers: Yu Shui, a 16-year-old girl forced to earn money to help her family relocate, and Chen Bo Yu, a 19-year-old machismo who is optimistic about China’s changing face.

A cruise ship marked Chang’s first experience with the river, where he shared the deck with Western tourists all naively hoping to see the “real” China. Chang couldn’t shake the feeling that what he saw was cursory, that he would never pierce China’s essence on the cruise.

But from the decks of that ship he did see villages and temples and a primeval landscape about to be consumed by the swelling river. The colossal dam roughly five times the size of the Hoover Dam – is hailed by the Chinese government as a miracle of modern engineering, an undeniable sign of progress.

Yet here was a bigger picture, a multitude of people whose lives were being inexorably altered by the dam. “That was kind of the point of the film I think, if there is one, to kind of expose some of the other sides of the story, especially for those who have fallen through the cracks,” he says.

For Chang, making Up the Yangtze was an exercise in immersing himself in the culture, not only to plumb the essence of his Chinese roots, but to be unobtrusive enough as a filmmaker to encapsulate a grain of reality. In setting out to capture the plight of China’s forgotten ones, the rural dwellers seeking out an existence on the Yangtze River, Chang knew he had to gain the trust of his subjects. So he met with Yu Shui’s family near Fenghu, the Ghost city. They had existed on the banks of the Yangtze for years, living in a ramshackle shelter, growing their own food and subsisting off the river. They would soon be displaced by the rising flood to an area where they would have to pay for what they had here for free, food and water. Chang befriended them, doing his best to experience their daily routine.

“Having found the family, and spending a good amount of time before I turned the cameras on, that was the crucial step in building a relationship with them,” he says. “They give you an enormous amount of trust because they know that you’re not going to walk away on them, you’re not going to close the book.”

What we have in Up the Yangtze is no Inconvenient Truth; there is no finger wagging, no statistics-laden diatribe. As John Anderson from Variety Magazine writes, “Up the Yangtze plays quite a subtle game with its subjects, with Chang displaying a precocious self-assurance, letting the viewer draw his or her own conclusions.” Chang does not preach, instead, he reveals a forthright human drama, a family coping with a tidal wave of change.

Capturing that drama was not only about remaining entrenched, he says, it was an exercise in patience and perseverance.
“It’s about asking questions and being patient and timing,” he says. “You’re finding a way to communicate with them so that they’re going to open their mouths and speak about feelings, and that’s what the point is I think, to get them to talk about how they feel.”

Chang worked with an entirely Chinese crew, a decision that proved invaluable given the Chinese government’s suspicion of the media. They knew how to “film under the radar,” and they saved him from potential conflict with Chinese authorities.

“What was important to help me make the film was working with a local Chinese crew, and using them as my safety gauge,” he says. “They are the ones that know what’s right and what’s wrong, and what’s good to shoot and what’s
not good to shoot, so it was important to be imbedded in that way as well, to work with local crews and speak in Mandarin.”

The result of Chang’s immersion in his environment is a genuine look at China, a new China dealing with a new identity. Up the Yangtze takes us on a boat cruise as Chang saw it – ominous and foreboding, like an excerpt from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, he says.

The struggles Chang captures are real. Take as an example Yu Shui’s wizened father carrying an unwieldy shelf, trying to save their belongings from the flood. He’s trembling under the load, clambering up a long, sheer face of precarious and craggy stones as he seeks dry ground. Chang felt a strong urge to help, he admits, but his duty as a filmmaker came first.

“I think if I would have turned the camera off, first I wouldn’t have done my job, and second of all, I wouldn’t have captured an essential truth, and that was a truth that needed to be seen.”


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