As the waters slowly rise, a parasitic industry has emerged. Luxury cruise ships carry tourists - many of them Westerners - up and down the Yangtze River on "farewell cruises." Chinese-Canadian filmmaker Yung Chang takes one of these cruises and documents the lives of the dispossessed on the river's banks, as well as the hardworking young people employed by the cruise ships, in the fascinating, moving documentary Up the Yangtze.
One of those displaced by the rising river is Yu Shui, a 16-year-old girl who dreams only of going to high school. Her parents are illiterate subsistence farmers for whom daily life is a constant struggle. The family lives in extreme poverty in a hand-built shack on the banks of the river: a temporary patchwork home that they occupy until the waters force them to move once again to higher ground. Yu Shui must put off high school so that she can work to support her family. Ironically, she is employed by the cruise line that regularly steams past her doomed home. In the eyes of her employers and co-workers, she's a country bumpkin. To her family, drowning in poverty, she's a lifeline.
Another new employee of the Victoria cruise ship is Chen Bo Yu, a cocky young man from a middle-class family. He is one of China's so-called "little emperors": an indulged and self-indulgent single son, the product of China's "one-child" policy. Tall and handsome, with good English skills, he works on the upper decks while Yu Shui scrubs dishes in the galley below.
Up the Yangtze offers a revealing picture of peasant life in China, as well as the emerging class structure - the upstairs/downstairs life - that has accompanied the rapid rise of capitalism. In the contrasts between Yu Shui and Chen Bo Yu - one a child of poverty, the other a child of privilege - Chang explores the changes, both good and bad, that the future promises to bring for young people in China.
Up the Yangtze looks past the rhetoric and propaganda about the dam and views the collateral damage: the people like Yu Shui's parents who will be left behind in the country's relentless march toward progress and prosperity. While Western tourists view the model homes supposedly occupied by the happily displaced and tour guides paint a rosy picture of the blessings of modernization, the Yu family moves from one hovel to another. Up the Yangtze is a melancholy meditation on a world that is disappearing - not just in China, but everywhere that capitalism and globalization are changing lives and landscapes around the world. The Yu family's plight makes for genuinely engrossing drama, made all the more affecting and poignant because it is real.
Chang could not have asked for a more engaging and heartbreaking subject than Yu Shui, a modest girl with modest dreams who gradually emerges from her shell with a giddy sense of possibility and opportunity. In her own way, she is a model of the new and rapidly changing China, while her parents remain trapped by crushing poverty and lack of education in an old China that is quickly disappearing.
Up the Yangtze serves partly as a quietly contemplative polemic on the Three Gorges Dam; but it is not so much a critique of China's paternalistic, top-down philosophy of governance as it is a revealing look at the way that system - Mao's system - is also giving way to Western ideals of individualism and personal success. But even as it looks at the larger controversy surrounding the dam, the film stays rooted in the immediate, apolitical, day-to-day concerns and struggles of ordinary citizens, and views the impact of the project through the eyes of the people left to sink or swim in the rising waters.