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Haunting progress on China’s biggest river

The future haunts the present.

Nowhere is the apparition called progress more evident than in China. On the Yangtze, the biggest river in this country of 1.3 billion people, the Three Gorges Dam project floods the homes and workplaces of more than 2 million people.

“Up the Yangtze” director Yung Chang makes insightfully mundane choices, focusing on only a few people. His documentary film does not touch the environmental issues of burying underwater a region roughly the size of Arizona’s Grand Canyon. Chang doesn’t rail against the seemingly monumental disregard for individual lives.



Both the cinematography and storytelling of “Up the Yangtze” lure you with an understated sensibility about the enormous scope of the construction and the countryside and the people.

The subsistence-level parents of a teenage girl are wholly resigned to the collective march of China’s progress. These parents consider their fate inconsequential. Not able to stay on their land or afford continued schooling for their daughter, they send her to work on a tourist ship that cruises the Yangtze.




The tourists consume the look and feel of a China steeped in the old and transitioning to the new.

As a dishwasher who could advance to jobs requiring contact with tourists, a sad, shy, dislocated young lady stands a measurable chance of progressing to a better life. This will likely include a budget that supports her parents, whose relocation requires more money than ever.

As a counterpoint, Yung Chang also focuses on an employee who comes from a less impoverished, more educated background. It is curious to see how this worker’s eyes are open wider to the spirit of progress and how it stacks up to the norms of Chinese modernization.

Paddling “Up the Yangtze” is not a scary journey into some heart of darkness. It is more like a persistent example of what goes for enlightened behavior. This film crafts a personalized peek at a country that we should strive to understand more fully.

The future haunts the present worldwide.

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“Up the Yangtze” plays at the Nevada Theatre Sunday, Sept. 28 at 7:30 p.m. Chuck Jaffee of Nevada City likes to plug people into the spirit of independent filmmakers. Find his other articles for The Union at http://www.startlets.com.


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