It feels like Yung Chang set out to make one film about the Three Gorges dam spanning China's Yangtze River, and wound up making another one entirely. His documentary Up The Yangtze begins as a personal essay, with long, thoughtful shots of the river and its surroundings alternating with narration about how he's on a "farewell tour," aboard one of a series of cruise ships sailing up the river to see towns and areas that will be underwater when the dam is complete, the water has risen hundreds of feet, and two million people have been displaced.
Then Yung sets his sights on two young people who gain employment on one of those ships, and his focus shifts as a new storyline emerges. One of the employees, cocky, handsome Bo Yu Chen ("Jerry," to the cruise ship's largely foreign passengers), brags about his ambitions and future, and how he makes far more money than his parents put together, in part by snubbing young or old tourists, who don't tip as well as middle-aged ladies. Meanwhile, seemingly shy, sulky Shui Yu ("Cindy"), whose parents live in a makeshift shack about to be swallowed by the rising Yangtze, weeps over her grimy work in the ship's kitchen, and only gradually comes out of her shell.
Both young people—the smug capitalist and the uprooted peasant—represent changing ways of life in China, and Yung seems more interested in what they symbolize than in them as people; he observes rather than interrogates, then weaves a tapestry image of a China in flux. His approach seems scattershot, disjointed, and unfocused, but he winds up with so many remarkable, telling sequences that Up The Yangtze goes from sleepily hypnotic to riveting over the course of 90 minutes. For instance, there's the shopkeeper who breaks down in tears over how hard the "common people" in China have it. Or the frighteningly chipper tour guide boasting to gawping tourists about the fine modern homes awaiting relocatees. (Giving him the lie, area villagers complain about the tiny fees they've been given to abandon their homes.) Most absorbing are the scenes between the heartbreakingly withdrawn Shui Yu and her pleased family, who seem to miss how painfully her expectations have collided with reality. Vast, numbing changes have overtaken virtually everyone else in the film the same way, and Yung captures the full range of reactions with a powerfully dispassionate style. His closing shots of Shui Yu's home disappearing into the river underline the importance of his film, in letting people remember exactly what the waters have erased.