Published Feb 07, 2008A luxury cruise boat crawls up the Yangtze, which the Chinese simply call "the River. Yu Shui, a teenage girl, leaves her shack nestled on the shore to work onboard in order to support her starving, illiterate family. In contrast, handsome Chen Bo Yu works on the cruise as a way of getting ahead. Hes the arrogant only son of a middle-class family from a small city and is a perfect example of the "little emperors found in this one-child nation.
Meanwhile, the mega-dam is being built; its the worlds biggest engineering project since the Great Wall. Merchants clash with corrupt government officials who demand bribes or force them to relocate. Eventually, the waters will rise and literally wipe out the Chinese past to usher in a new age, one thats exciting yet troubling.
Montreal-based director Yung Chang weaves all these threads together in a fascinating and poignant feature documentary. In China, life is cheap. Yu Shui leaves her parents shack clutching all her worldly belongings in a plastic shopping bag. An antiques dealer breaks down as he describes how government officials beat and harassed him into relocating. Meanwhile, a smiley tour guide describes how "everybody is happy with relocation. "Uh, huh, replies the sceptical American tourist.
As Yu Shui struggles to serve fat Western tourists, Chen Bo Yu is ecstatic to receive 20-dollar American tips for carrying luggage, but is too arrogant to keep his mouth shut. Down the river, Yu Shuis parents flee the rising waters. In one remarkable scene, her father carries a huge closet up the shore on his skinny back, just like Atlas bearing the world on his shoulders.
Wisely, Chinese-Canadian director Chung keeps his commentary to a minimum, letting the pictures speak for themselves. It took six years to make this film and every frame shows care and patience. This is a remarkable document about the worlds largest nation undergoing an economic and social revolution, as symbolised by the River. (NFB-CBC)