The third largest river in the world, the Yangtze passes through the Chinese countryside; ever since the construction of the Three Gorges Dam started in 1994, however, this miracle of nature has become a virtual battleground. Economists praise the project as a sign of social progress, while environmentalists point to the disastrous effect it’s had on the landscape. Rather than simply letting both sides air their grievances, Canadian documentarian Yung Chang travels a far more interesting route, concentrating instead on how this mechanical monstrosity has fostered a colonialistic tourist trade.
While entire communities are destroyed by the rampant flooding, boat cruises catering to Americans and Europeans who want to see these remnants of “old-world China” do booming business. Two new recruits to this service industry—a socially awkward peasant girl and a cash-obsessed rich boy—adopt Westernized names (“Cindy” and “Jerry”) and practice English niceties to earn larger tips. Meanwhile, the water keeps rising and more locals see their houses literally engulfed.
An indirect but potent indictment of the Dam-age done, Up the Yangtze says more about what’s being lost—culturally, geographically, morally—than any parade of talking heads ever could. Chang’s personal narration, full of anecdotes about his Chinese grandfather, is the only superfluous element; everything else eulogizes the human toll with a stinging effectiveness.