Yung Chang’s documentary Up the Yangtze, on two young cruise staff recruits in the shadow of the Three Gorges Dam, humanises an ever-expanding sub-genre on the effects of China’s industrial and commercial growth. He discusses with BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM the cost of change, river metaphors, and Renoir’s Rules of the Game.


THE CONCEPT of progress can never be simply described in a black and white way, yet it’s hard to deny that for every benefit, there’s often something lost. Canadian filmmaker Yung Chang’s documentary Up the Yangtze looks at the human cost of the Three Gorges Dam project in China, a project which symbolises a lot about China’s growing industrial and commercial power, but also shows how the individuals can get caught underneath the machinations of modernity. Chang’s documentary is set on river cruise, a microcosm which distils the point between the haves and have-nots and between modernity and traditionalism. Chang captures the astonishing transformation undergoing China with more than a touch of wisdom, sadness and wit.

Chang moved into documentary filmmaking, partly because of the funding and support documentary filmmakers receive from the National Film Board of Canada. “Initially I’d studied fiction filmmaking, but I’d always had this sort of keen eye to make documentaries even when I was studying in high school. I was making sort of observational films without even being aware of it.” This fiction background helped however in the construction of Up the Yangtze. “The initial concept of the movie went through different transformations. One way I like to make a movie is to think about it fictionally and how to create it in a narrative structure. Initially the story was about tourists who were going to be actors on this cruise ship and below deck, that sort of interconnected world with this upstairs/downstairs environment. It became very clear the documentary medium would suit the production.”

The concept for the film came from a trip Chang took with his parents and his grandfather, where boat cruises went up and down the Yangtze to show tourists what the river was like before the Three Gorges Dam would come into full effect. “I went in with the knowledge that this could be this surreal experience and it really was. To me it was like The Love Boat meeting Apocalypse Now.” The considerable contrasts were evident too. “Everywhere in the world there are issues of poverty and extreme poverty but I think in China in particular, especially now, those issues of wealth and poverty, capitalism and consumerism and all these issues really do become a little more stark.”

Chang realised the potential of the metaphor he had with the boat and its inhabitants, and consequently spent four years researching the film. “On this boat you have the entire world contained. It’s very layered in that world, you had the Three Gorges Dam which for me represented this symbol of modernisation at the end of this journey on the river of life. The Yangtze River is really considered the lifeline of China. I wanted to build this connection between the onshore life and the cruise-ship so you will have this parallel storytelling going on, and that connection was through the workers. I managed to find a couple of subjects through the recruitment process and through that, have that connection from the home life before working to following these kids getting on the cruise ship to work.”

“I went in with the knowledge that this could be this surreal experience and it really was. To me it was like The Love Boat meeting Apocalypse Now.”


He benefited from having a good relationship with the cruise company “who are an American managed cruise-boat. They allowed me full access, unrestricted, and through them I was able to go on these river tours looking for new employees with the managers and people like Yu Shui and Chen Bo Yu would sign up for the interview. They were hired in the winter and they didn’t have to get on the boat until the summer so I had that extended period of time to build up the home life leading up to the point they had to leave.” This also meant that Chang had two hundred hours of footage to wade through for the final product.

I asked if it was hard winning trust with the subjects, especially given that they were young, working in a stressful environment and away from home for the first time. “That is always a tricky process, as a documentary filmmaker one must spend time with your subject, build that level of trust, that relationship. For me it was primarily built around the fact that I wasn’t going to walk away at the end of the production and disappear. Even to this day, I’m in touch with all the subjects, I’ve begun a fund, a charity to help the family in the film. One important aspect was that the Yu family, had a feeling that I’d be a mentor for Yu Shui as she left home for the first time, sixteen years old, leaving home for the first time, that I’d be there, sort of like a big brother.”

I ask if it was difficult disentangling a Western or even Orientalist perspective from a story about a particular aspect of China. “I was really conscious of not wanting to do that. For me, the Western perspectives are the tourists on the boat and they for me represent the way one as an outsider interprets another culture. In that film there is that element of perception, how one perceives that other culture and vice versa. I wanted to be sensitive to both sides. Especially the Chinese perspective. I suppose being that sort of hyphenated perspective that I am, being both Chinese and Canadian, and not really identifying with both cultures but somewhere in the middle, that helped me to make this film. It allowed me to be Chinese when I had to be and it allowed me to be an outsider when I had to be. I think that conflict was important.”

In New Zealand at least, the focus in the media on the Three Gorges Dam was on the environmental damage, and quite frequently the human cost was ignored. “Given that there may be benefits with the Three Gorges Dam project, the scope of it is so huge that upwards of four million people have to be relocated. That is the population of New Zealand. You find in the media and you find on documentaries, emphasis on the engineering project itself, but I wanted to put a human face on the story of this dam project. In the film the engineering project exists as an abstract entity in the film. None of the subjects really identify with it. It’s affecting their lives, and yet it’s so removed from their everyday life.” There’s now almost a sub-genre of Three Gorges films such as Dong, Still Life and Manufactured Landscapes. Chang also mentions a new film called Bing Ai, which he describes as a “very intense, very detailed film” about a woman’s quest for compensation from corrupt officials. “I’m inspired by Chinese filmmakers – Jia Zhang-Ke, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Edward Yang. Even documentary filmmakers like Jiang Yue. He made this great documentary called This Happy Life that showed to me you can be poetic and beautiful in your cinematography, and create a film that is composed in a sense, yet maintain this documentary process.”

“I would arrive in villages and towns, and we would pull out the camera and people would come up and talk to us about issues of local corruption, environmental issues, anything about the Three Gorges Dam because it’s not illegal to talk about these things. It’s very different from what I’d gone into thinking about what it’d be like. I think for a lot of Westerners and outsiders, one thinks it’s this really totalitarian state. My experience proved to be quite opposite to that.”


A trust in progress and technology must also be particularly strong in a country which is rapidly industrialising. “In China there’s a saying, and the saying goes ‘nations come and go, kingdoms rise and fall’. I like that. That’s sort of how China lives, you’re always moving forward, the past is much less in a physical sense, but much more in that internal sense. That’s sort of the way Chinese history has always been, that idea of re-shaping and it’s sort of circular in the way history works in China. I would say that’s really prevalent, in a lot of people, especially in the younger generation. They want to move forward like anywhere in the world. That was one of the conflicts that came out. As an outsider you can look upon progress and see it from an outsider perspective as a negative thing. Of course in the West they had two hundred and seventy-five years of environmental havoc and industrialisation. China’s doing that in a much shorter period of time and are dealing with those lessons learned and those pressures. The conflict would be who could deny people the opportunities that people are having now in China that they never had during Western industrialisation?”

For a film that examines the Three Gorges Dam from not necessarily a celebratory point of view, one wonders if there were any problems with authorities. However Chang says, “actually no, not at all. What was interesting was that upon the advice of my crew who were all Chinese filmmakers from Beijing – and I worked very closely with them, we lived together, I moved to China for a year to shot the movie – they advised me not to get permission, to actually shoot under the radar as many filmmakers do in China, especially documentary filmmakers. There’s a real movement in documentary observational filmmaking and it began in the mid-90s. With their advice I proceeded in that direction to avoid any sort of authority, in fact, we didn’t encounter any problems. I would arrive in villages and towns, and we would pull out the camera and people would come up and talk to us about issues of local corruption, environmental issues, anything about the Three Gorges Dam because it’s not illegal to talk about these things. It’s very different from what I’d gone into thinking about what it’d be like. I think for a lot of Westerners and outsiders, one thinks it’s this really totalitarian state. My experience proved to be quite opposite to that. Of course there are limitations on freedom of speech – you can’t talk about Tibet or Tiananmen Square, it’s not a daily conversation in that world anyway. I think in China people live in the moment, things that are affecting their lives in the immediate are what concerns people.”

However, the film is not only about China. China is hardly the only society that places trust in technology and progress. “The whole idea of the culture of tourism and the tourism of culture was the initial interest in film. It’s so easy to label things in terms of black and white terminology. When you got to China you realise it’s such a complex society and so is the culture. For me it was about exploring the shades of grey, and the nuances, the complexities of progress.” It helped with having the metaphor of the river, a nod to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. “There was a lot going into that idea of a river journey, whether it was like Fitzcarraldo or any sort of river. There’s something mythical, something romanticised about river journeys. For me I had this notion of a Mississippi cruise ship roly-poly on this “third world environment”. As you travel along the river, along the shoreline, there are these apocalyptic visions of cities abandoned and torn down, and it’s very misty. And there is that world of the apocalyptic. And what’s really interesting is that the subjects of my film come from the ghost city.”

But a closer link to Up the Yangtze would be Renoir’s masterpiece Rules of the Game, where the house symbolised the haves and the have-nots, the rich and poor, the lucky and the unlucky, in essence French society. Chang found a similar, powerful motif with the boat, the river, the workers and the tourists, their successes and the failures, their hopes and dreams, and in the process he was able to comment not only on China, but comment sharply on modernity and capitalism the world over. “I’m lucky that I had that microcosm. But you’re right Renoir’s film and even Altman’s Gosford Park and these sort of movies have this sort of effect on me. You can deal with specifics and talk about the bigger picture through that.”