Sunday, January 11, 2009

Two of the year's best films are about the Three Gorges Dam, which cuts across the Yangtze in central China and is the world's largest hydroelectric project. I'll discuss Jia Zhang-ke's marvelous Still Life when I get around to compiling my ten favorite films (South Florida's malnourished movie market means I'm catching up with new releases now), Up The Yangtze deserves mention now. This documentary by Canadian writer-director Yung Chung follows two teenagers who get work on a party boat that caters to Western tourists. The girl, who has an expression like she's on the verge of breaking out into hysterical tears, washes dishes; the supercilious boy, the product of a more economically secure (such as it is in the post-Mao China) family, learns English and collects tips (in American dollars) as a host. Their bosses offer firm advice: "Don't be modest or too humble -- they [tourists] think it's fake. Avoid Northern Island. Don't talk about monarchies or any relevant political issues. Avoid Northern island. Said tourists amble around the deck snapping photos of one another in in 19th century dowager costumes. "I think China's even more modern than I expected to see, but the poverty in the rural life is especially visible," says one bright-eyed American with a Southern accent. Meanwhile the girl's parents admit to the culture of crypto-capitalist slavery of modern China. "It's because your father and I don't have [your] skills that we have to exploit you," her mother explains. The system exploits every citizen: the Three Gorges Dam project demanded that villagers move whole towns to make way for the diverted river. Walt Disney might have approved.

Yung's images are concrete, unforced; they extend sympathy while avoiding the didactic trap of the documentarian. Like the river that gives the great Jean Renoir film its title, the Yangtze sets the tone: it offers no judgment, indifferent to the detritus washing up on shore.

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