Up the Yangtze
directed by Yung Chang
written by Yung Chang
starring Jerry Bo Yu Chen, Campbell Ping He, Cindy Shui Yu
The gorgeous, intoxicating Yangtze river, simply referred to as “the river” in China, is the backdrop for this fascinating story that relates China’s hopeful ascendency into a world power. The film focuses on the lives of two young people who take jobs aboard a giant luxury liner waiting on drunken Westerners. It also tracks the technical wonder known as the Three Gorges Dam, the largest hydroelectric dam in the history of the world.
Shui Yu leaves her parents and young siblings behind and goes to work on the ship. She wants to go to school but there simply isn’t enough money for the luxury. The family subsists on produce grown around their shack which sits straight in the way of the river once it will overflow. When she arrives at the boat Shui Yu is given her new name: “Cindy”. It’s a strange moment of westernization where something is thought to be improved and made more digestible to the mass of European and American tourists who won’t have to worry about trying to pronounce a “foreign” sounding name. There’s a quiet separation at work here as the only way the new recruits are allowed to work on the ship is to give up part of their identity.
The goal for each of the workers on the boat is to learn English and get a great job working either as a translator or perhaps even in Europe or America doing anything they can set their minds to it. There is a real devotion to hard work in this film that is heralded as a necessary aspect of success. One gets the impression that the Chinese are in hyperdrive in attempting to reach the vaunted heights of superpower status. Everything in this film suggests a culture that has, for better or worse, taken upon itself Western values that are being forced on the mostly rural population who must, in the case of the dam, adapt or literally be washed away. It’s an escalation toward some mystical, perfect life that will live in apartments, use electronic devices at a rate not yet seen, and grow into happy little middle class consumers just like those suffering through the subprime chaos in the west.
There is an urgency to this film as it plays out the drama of the enormous tech achievement looms heavily over the heads of the two million who have already been evacuated and scattered about away from their traditional homeland. The film doesn’t say much if anything at all about the specific changes in the lifestyles of these people nor does it offer any challenges to the legitimacy of the dam. In this film it is just taken for granted that the dam will be built and that it will benefit all. That certainly is the official line and most people seem to buy it easily enough. Still it might be intriguing to learn more about the actual building of the dam from the worker’s perspective or even from the point of view of a bureaucrat who could further sell the concept behind the enormous enterprise.
The film focuses on personal stories that represent the hopes and dreams of an exceedingly poor people. Shui is supposed to make enough money to support her family so there is a tremendous amount of pressure on her to succeed. Her parents do manage to move above the floodline where they suddenly find themselves having to purchase food and water. It is assumed that they will be allowed to do so due to Shui’s income. There are scenes where she struggles with her work and one wonders if she laments not being able to attend high school. Still, she has reached a higher level of education that both her parents, neither of whom can read. This film offers a simple tale where the youth of China are given opportunities to move into the middle class and accomplish much more than their parent’s could ever imagine. They are the future of China which means they are to participate in the immense psycho-social project that China has designed in order to make them an all-powerful force in the 21st century.
The dam represents ingenuity on a massive scale. This film reflects a tremendous optimism that informs so much of what is being attempted here. As the greeters and waiters are being taught how best to address the tourists one senses they are witnessing the first step up the ladder for frighteningly ambitious young people who soon enough will be the ones taking cruises.
Jerry Bo Yu Chen is a case of too much personality and self-determination. Apparently, this is not something the Chinese strive to inculcate into their children. They also do not want them to be too docile or meek. There is a difficult balance that must be kept between the two realms of behavior. Jerry is not considered to be a team player and is terminated. The Chinese blame this phenomenon on being a single child. Jerry does not worry because he has a cushy home life back with his parents and doesn’t have to work to support himself. He’s already a step up the ladder and his lack of ambition might keep him there if he doesn’t feel the need to ascend further. It’s clear that ambition is considered a virtue in China as long as it is directed toward an important and worthwhile job.
Overall, this film celebrates the desires and longings of an entire people who seem to be collectively climbing out of the Yangtze in order to accumulate their fair share of gadgets and other creature comforts. The two youth featured in this film are merely two amongst a billion whose stories of varying degrees of success are vastly similar. This film promotes a moment in the not to distant future when the damn will close and flood enormous swaths of land. There seems to be a calm attitude toward the dam as it represents a huge jump in the country’s ability to harness natural energy for its ever-growing population. This film gets inside the psychology that has informed this infatuation with grand achievement with a global reach.