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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.


The Bridge

A haunting image.

The Golden Gate Bridge is one of the most photographed monuments in the world. Built in 1937, it’s man’s gigantic feat against the harsh elements of the Bay. Two things come to my mind when I think about the Golden Gate: San Francisco, one of the most beautiful cities on Earth, and the beloved sitcom “Full House.” Two very happy thoughts. Some people look at the bridge and see nothing happy; merely a way out.

This poignant 2006 documentary follows the life and death of some of the 24 souls that decided to end it all on the bridge over the course of one year (2004). Filmmaker Eric Steel naturally released this documentary to much controversy, not only because of the disturbing images, but also because he revealed that he had tricked the Golden Gate bridge committee into allowing him to film the bridge by saying he wanted to “capture the powerful, spectacular intersection of monument and nature that takes place every day at the Golden Gate Bridge.” During the months of filming on the bridge, they had captured 23 of the 24 suicides that took place, hauntingly intertwined with interviews from the family members of the deceased.

But why The Bridge? Maybe they thought, “Hey, if I’m gonna go, I’m gonna go in style.” The Golden Gate bridge seems perfect for those with a flair for the dramatic. But as we learn about these people, it’s really just sad. No big surprises in the types of people featured. Mentally ill, depressed, penniless, self-deprecating and misguided souls. They all left behind mothers, fathers, children, cousins, roomates, and friends who had a whole world of hurt and questions to deal with. Many of them saw it coming already. They had heard it all, the never-ending loop of “I’m just going to end it all.” But like any optimistic human being, they never truly saw it coming. You could feel the helplessness they felt through the screen and the whys & the hows that they’ll never quite understand.

Steel also tracked down bystanders affected by the suicides, which presented an interesting angle to the whole story. He interviewed a family on holiday taking pictures on the bridge near a jumper, and kite surfers in the bay who saw a body plunge near them. I can’t even imagine what that’s like. I personally need a moment to recover from seeing a minor fender bender on the road, so I just can’t wrap my head around that. We see footage of interrupted suicide attempts, where total strangers risk their own safety in order to pull the would-be jumper from the ledge. He also features a first-hand account of the jump from a rare survivor of the 4-second fall. Like many suicide committers, he realized as soon as he let go of the ledge that he wanted to live. He prevented death by falling into the water feet first, but still fractured some of his spine. He recounted the painful cracking of tiny bone fragments that lodged themselves into his internal organs. That’s right, kids. Gross.

I wish more movies affected me the way this did. I love indie documentaries about the mundane and the unpopular, but they often try too hard and don’t always keep my interest. This one, I just couldn’t turn away from. When it finished, I was simply sad. That’s it. Even though they couldn’t have made a film about a more depressing topic, I always love feeling the way I did after it, for lack of a better term, ended.

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