10
Aug
10

Up the Yangtze

What is the first thing you think of when you think of China? Be honest.

Orange chicken?
Knockoff Rolex watches and Louis Vuitton?
Cute little pandas?

As someone who is of part Chinese heritage, I admit, this isn’t quite right. But due to the capitalistic nature of today’s society, all we think about is what we can get for cheap. Where can we get things for cheap? China. We don’t stop to think about how day to day life goes for people who actually have to live it.

The movie focuses on one region in particular, the Yangtze river delta near Hubei, and how the residents of the area are affected by the Three Gorges Dam. It’s pretty painful, watching as farmers & their families of an extremely rural area are pretty much forced to accept the new developments. We meet two young people, “Cindy” (Yu Shui) & “Jerry” (Chen Bo Yu), who are adjusting to this new way of life.

Yu Shui comes from a very poor family living on the banks of the river. They’re basically a farming family, and her parents do not know how to read or write. They send Yu Shui off to work on a cruise ship that caters to wealthy western tourists. She must learn to introduce herself properly in English, as well as know basic service phrases, such as “Enjoy your meal,” and “Have a nice day.” She also must learn the ins and outs of the dishroom, and how to provide backup support to the kitchen staff. She finds her tasks to be daunting and even breaks down at the dishwashing machine one day. She’s definitely out of her element. But her family needs money. They can no longer afford meat and are having trouble coming up with enough money for other basic things. Before Yu Shui heads out for her job on the ship, her mother tells her to not to shy away from buying herself decent meals and clothes, but also to not forget to send money back to them. When Yu Shui innocently asks her mother & father to see her off, her mother replies “No. We can’t read, we might direct you to the wrong ship.” Ouch.

Chen Bo Yu is a different story. He’s a lot more outspoken than the emotional, shy Yu Shui. He’s the only son, and he’s a typical show-off. His main objective: make money. After receiving a $30 tip from the tourists after the cruise, Jerry is exuberant. “F*ck!,” he proclaims. “This is 30 American dollars!!!” He’s on top of the world. Eventually, his outgoingness/overexcitedness comes to bite him in the ass, as a complaint letter is received, accusing Jerry in particular of asking for tips, which he denies. It was all a culture clash/misunderstanding, but it was probably one of many on this trip.

Okay, so, it’s sad enough that we have to watch these two uncomfortable young adults deal with western tourists, right? Well, here’s something else. The water is rising. The cruiseship is apocalyptically called “The Farewell Tour,” one last chance for tourists to see the livelihood of the river delta before it disappears. In unsettling time-lapse imagery, director Yung Chang shows us the rising waters of the river, and how many of the inhabitants, including Yu Shui’s family, must load their few possessions onto their backs and move it to higher ground. In a short time, the river takes over the family home and everything surrounding it. It’s long gone. Soon, I’m sure neon lights will take its place, just another reminder of China’s foray into the uncertain future.

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