Another of my favorite films at the Full Frame Documentary Festival in April has arrived in Portland--it's been at Cinema 21 this past week and will run at the Hollywood for one more week. Profound, wise, and visually stunning, "Up the Yangtze" is the first feature-length documentary of a perceptive and visionary Canadian director, Yung Chang. Inspired by a "farewell cruise" that Chang took with his family along the Yangtze River before it was flooded in the course of construction of the ambitious Three Gorges Dam, Chang spent years developing relationships with individuals affected by the project, which has displaced two million people and may displace two million more as a result of the environmental damage. That painstaking work enables him to use intimate stories--that of one family in particular--to depict an epic social reality. What other films would have explained and described Chang simply shows you; the images do the work. Yet his visual sense is matched by a remarkable humanity; Chang's care with his subjects, particularly a poor family whose eldest daughter must forego her dreams of high school to take a job on a cruise ship to support the family, is evident in this depiction of people who have fallen through the cracks of a culture bent on "progress."
The dam, the world's largest, is considered China's most significant engineering feat since the Great Wall. Yet Chang's film, composed of unforgettable images of the drastic environmental change, is most remarkably a closely observed vision of small moments in the lives of forgotten people--a teenager who alternately longs for and is mortified by parents who entirely miss what is most important to her; parents literatively and figuratively hunched from adjusting to the intolerable burdens of daily life. And then there are the tourists from the West, so accustomed to being catered to that they seem to have lost the ability to perceive it (one kindly compliments an eager crew member on the cruise ship for being less obtrusive she expected). The last ten minutes are mostly depictions of the effects of the flooding on places we have come to know--and the pay-off is how much one aches to see it, a tiny taste of what it must feel like to watch your way of life being literally washed away. I can't remember when I've seen a film that so captured the sense of a type of suffering that is actually quite commonplace but is little understood and rarely depicted. I expect to be writing more on this one when it comes time to write my top-ten list, but for now, don't miss it on the big screen.