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51st San Francisco International Film Festival at PFA

Thursday, May 8, 2008
8:55 p.m. Up the Yangtze
Yung Chang (Canada, 2007)

Yung Chang in Person

On a cruise ship gliding up the Yangtze River, European and North American tourists get a relaxing firsthand view of changing China. The perspective is markedly different, however, for two Chinese teenagers working on the boat. Chen Bo (who is assigned the gringo-friendly name Jerry) is a good-looking, supremely self-confident urban dude with a quick appreciation for the newly introduced practice of tipping. Downstairs in the galley, meanwhile, the shy country girl Yu Shui (a.k.a. Cindy) grapples with the demeaning drudgery of dirty dishes. Yu Shui would much rather be in school, but it’s not in the cards. The imminent completion of the Three Gorges Dam will submerge the meager plot of land on which her family ekes out its existence. Not only is there no money for her schooling, her parents will need a chunk of her check to get by (and, one presumes, to pay for her younger brother’s education down the road). The dam is a source of pride for many Chinese—even a shop owner in a village destined to disappear beneath the water refers to “sacrificing the little family for the big family.” But reality trumps philosophy: voice cracking, the same man laments, “China is too hard for common people.” Chinese Canadian filmmaker Yung Chang displays a lyrical eye for landscape and detail that doesn’t shy from hard truths. His haunting film leaves us mourning what is lost and wondering what is gained. Alas, progress is like a ship steaming up a river: there is no way but forward.

—Michael Fox

• Photographed by Wang Shi Qing. (93 mins)