“May you be cursed to live in interesting times” is not only a venerable Chinese proverb, it is also an apt description of what many parts of that country are going through today, a situation brought to evocative life in the finely made new documentary “Up the Yangtze.”
The Yangtze is China’s major river and the longest in Asia as well as the site of the under-construction Three Gorges Dam, the largest hydroelectric project in the world, big enough to flood entire cities and displace about 2 million Chinese.
Fascinated by the Yangtze because of his immigrant grandfather’s attachment to it, Canadian documentarian Yung Chang decided to document this transition. He focused on the Farewell Tours put on by Victoria Cruises, showing us how the river looks to Western tourists traveling on it as well as the young Chinese recruited to work on the boats.
For these young people, each of whom is given a Western name by the tour operators, this is often the first time they’ve been in contact with the wider world in which they will be making their way, and through them we can see what societal change means on a personal level.
Director Yung was able to work with potential subjects for up to a year before he started filming, and that has helped him gain the trust and cooperation of the two young people who are his primary focus.
Chen Bo Yu, renamed Jerry, is a self-possessed young man from a prosperous family who has a good command of English and the confidence that life will always work out for him.
By contrast, Yu Shui, renamed Cindy, comes from a family of subsistence farmers who’ve already been displaced once by the flood waters and likely will be again. She’d prefer to continue her education, but her family’s financial situation makes that impossible.
One of the real pluses of “Up the Yangtze,” aside from its empathy with its subjects, is its striking visual quality. Beijing-based cinematographer Wang Shi Qing has an impeccable eye, often coming up with haunting images that show both the beauty and uncertainty of this pivotal time.
“Up the Yangtze.” Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes. At Laemmle’s Royal, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A., (310) 477-5581; Laemmle’s Playhouse 7, 673 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, (626) 844-6500; Laemmle’s Town Center 5, 17200 Ventura Blvd, Encino, (818) 981-9811; and Regency’s South Coast Village, 1561 W. Sunflower Ave., Santa Ana, (714) 557-5701.