By James Van Maanen
Progress is such a loaded term. Coincidentally with this week's opening of Chinese-Canadian filmmaker Yung Chang's Up the Yangtze, one of the top stories in the news detailed how FDA officials have now identified tainted Heparin in eleven countries and discovered a clear link between the contaminated blood thinner from China and 81 deaths here in the US. Mr. Chang's documentary is chock full of this kind of "progress" - from the mighty to the minute. The former can be found in China's Three Gorges Dam, the largest hydroelectric project in history, while the latter is personified by a shy, 16-year-old girl named Yu Shui who gives up her schooling for a "better" life as a dishwasher on a cruise ship sailing the Yangtze, China's famous river that is being transformed by the new dam as it concurrently floods the surrounding countryside.
This flooding has left countless Chinese - including Yu Shui's own family - homeless, but the government claims that the big picture is so much more important than the small family, and anyway, it is re-locating all those folk made homeless. Rather in the same fashion, it appears, that our own government managed during the post-Katrina debacle.
You'll have to forgive my obvious disbelief; Mr. Chang keeps his more tightly wrapped. Up the Yangtze is slow and leisurely, as it unfolds its story of Yu Shui (given the Americanized name of "Cindy" by her cruise ship bosses) and Chen Bo Yu, a tall, good-looking and sexy young fellow - self-confidence personified (listen and watch as he serenades the American tourists!) - who is christened "Jerry." These two and a few other characters (Yu Shui's family, an about-to-be relocated antiques dealer) comprise the human side of the equation; the river and the dam, lovingly photographed by Chang and his director of photography Wang Shi Qing, represent nature and technology. Politics are here, too: the Chinese government would appear to signify communism and the left, while capitalism is present in the form of the cruise ship line, which is owned by a Taiwanese-American who is based in Woodside, Queens - just one neighborhood over from my own. Small world. Big trauma. And yet nothing is quite so black and white - as a joke told early in the film (about the choice of a driving direction and the use of a turn signal) makes cleverly clear.
Mr. Chang does not spell this all out in capital letters, but it's there for thoughtful viewers to decipher. He and his DP have a poet's eye for the stark beauty of ships, locks and dead cities, and the verdant loveliness of the river, its islands and shores. During the documentary's 90 minutes, I could have done with a bit more detail - about the Chinese we meet, their thoughts and ideas - and less lengthy visuals dwelling on the ship and those locks. What remains, however, is the humanity: "Cindy" and her family, "Jerry" and his amazing self-involvement, and perhaps especially that antiques dealer. One minute this fellow is spouting the correct party line, the next he's frightened and choking back tears. All hail progress.
I met with Yung Chang at the beginning of his only day with the press. He's young, fired-up, full of vinegar and excitement. Extremely well-spoken, he's a pleasure to listen to and converse with. It turns out that the two of us share an alma mater, the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre here in New York City. Chang credits the school and its teachings with helping him better understand the role of "character" is his work, and I want to learn how he made the transition from drama school to documentaries.
First question: How did you get from the Neighborhood Playhouse, which provides training for those going into legitimate theatre careers, to making a documentary film about present day China?
The Neighborhood Playhouse?
Yes. I noticed this fact mentioned in your press information, and I happen to have gone to that school many years ago. So I'm interested in the transition here. Also, you seem to credit your study at the school for some of your techniques - which we'll get to later.
You went to the Playhouse? That's amazing. So you studied with Sanford Meisner?
No. Unfortunately, he was on some sort of leave of absence when I attended.
Right. He went out to LA, I think. I found out about the Playhouse because I had taken this kind of acting course in Montreal with a professor from Concordia University, and she was very big on Meisner.
Lots of people were.
Yes, so when I found out about the school, I thought I ought to check it out. I auditioned - and I got in.
You grew up in Canada?
Yes, in a town outside of Toronto. I'm a first-generation Canadian. My parents are from China. I spent my childhood in Toronto and moved to Montreal for university.
How did you get into the documentary field?
In Canada, there is a very strong feeling for and a lot of support for documentaries. The National Film Board of Canada sort of takes credit for founding the documentary medium - with John Grierson, back in the 1930s. Documentary seems the right path for the sort of film I wanted to make, but I think it depends on the project, really. My inspiration for this was that it be about real people who were being affected by what is happening now by the Three Gorges Dam.
Your lead character is training to be a dishwasher, right?
Yes, and it maybe seems odd to us in the west that she would aspire to anything like that, but because she didn't have the height requirement, and was not what many would call a very beautiful girl...
And she was also very shy and somewhat socially untutored...
So she did not have the experience that might have helped her work above deck, so she works below deck - at least for a while.
Have you had any further contact with your lead characters: Cindy, her family, and Jerry?
Yes, I have actually!
Will this be on the DVD for the film, once that arrives?
Of course! We have also been updating our website pretty regularly, too, concerning that family and other characters. One of the first things we did when the film was finished was to go back to China and show it to our main characters.
Was everyone relatively happy with what they saw - except for maybe Jerry?
Yes, they were. And Jerry, believe it or not, wished that there could have been more of him in the film! More focus on his character. I guess the entire storyline kind of went over his head!
Well, he was rather self-involved.
Very, very self-involved. Cindy, on the other hand - well, you can imagine how weird it was for her to actually see herself on film, and her family, too. She wrote to me a couple of weeks later that, because of watching the film, she was finally able to see her face, her destiny, and because of this, she decided to leave the cruise boat and go back to high school. So we stepped in at that point to pay for her high school. We have since started a fund for her family and we hope to lift them out of their poverty and help buy them a new plot of land or maybe a new business. We want to maintain a connection with her and her family.
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