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Where EAST meets the Northwest

WATERLOGGED. The controversial Three Gorges Dam project — a hydroelectric mega-dam spanning the Yangtze River in Hubei province, China and scheduled for completion in 2009 — has been in some stage of development for more than 70 years. Two films — Up the Yangtze and Still Life — consider the negative impact of the Three Gorges Dam in addition to other themes. Pictured is the Yu home flooded by the rising Yangtze River in Up the Yangtze. (Photo/Yung Chang, courtesy of EyeSteelFilm).

From The Asian Reporter, V18, #25 (June 24, 2008), page 15.

Farewell to Yangtze

Up the Yangtze

Directed by Yung Chang

Produced by EyeSteelFilm, 2007

Distributed by the National Film Board of Canada

By Patrick Galloway

When making a film about a real event, filmmakers normally choose one of two approaches: dramatic portrayal or documentary. I recently had the unique experience of seeing two films, one in each format, depicting the same subject. The films were shown at the 51st annual San Francisco International Film Festival. The subject? The controversial Three Gorges Dam project, a hydroelectric mega-dam spanning the Yangtze River in Hubei province, China. Scheduled for completion in 2009, the dam has been in some stage of development for more than 70 years. The dream of Mao Tzedong, it has become a potent symbol of Chinese nationalism and economic prosperity. For the river folk, however, the 600-foot-high, 1.5-mile long structure is more evocative of destruction, corruption, and forced relocation.

The two films — Up the Yangtze and Still Life — couldn’t be more different. Beyond the obvious dichotomy in genre, the films diverge further in tone and narrative approach. While both consider the negative impact of the Three Gorges Dam, Up the Yangtze, the documentary, is a lighter, more personal take on the subject, while Still Life is a sombre, existential meditation on loss. Both films are excellent.

Up the Yangtze is directed by Chinese-Canadian filmmaker Yung Chang, who got the idea for his documentary after taking a so-called "farewell cruise" up the legendary river in 2002. These cruises are popular with foreign tourists eager to see parts of the river and surrounding landscape that will become submerged when the dam is finally brought online. The region is dotted with ominous water lines painted on signs (or worse, the sides of buildings) showing where the water will eventually reach, creating an eerie sense of impending deluge. Many towns are already underwater as a result of dam construction. Chang follows the progress of two teenagers, new employees of Victoria Cruises. Shui Yu, 16, comes from an impoverished family living in a shack by the riverside. Chen Bo Yu, 19, is a cocky city kid from a middle-class family. What results is an intriguing upstairs/downstairs look at the farewell cruise industry in the midst of looming eco-disaster.

Still Life is the work of Beijing-based director Jia Zhang-ke (Unknown Pleasures, The World). The film is aptly named; a profound stillness suffuses the proceedings, a stark, Buddhistic emptiness that is, of course, full-to-bursting as well. As in Up the Yangtze, we are shown two characters, a man and a woman, and follow them through the changes wrought by the Three Gorges Dam. Sanming is a poor miner in search of his estranged wife, now relocated from her submerged home; Shen Hong is a middle-class housewife looking for her husband, a man increasingly called away to business in the dam region. Presented at a moody, contemplative pace, the performances are muted, with long pauses between words spoken, allowing the larger implications of the situation to sink in. This might sound like a nice way of saying slow, but there are ways to do slow that work; Michelangelo Antonioni, Takeshi Kitano, Stanley Kubrick — I was reminded of all these filmmakers while watching Still Life.

You don’t have to be Chinese or have a particular interest in Chinese culture to get caught up in Up the Yangtze and Still Life. The theme of industrial impact on life and landscape is sadly a common one, yet here the scale and historical significance are so vast that one can’t help but be profoundly moved.

Still Life is scheduled to screen at Portland’s Hollywood Theatre, located at 4122 N.E. Sandy Boulevard, beginning June 27. For more information, including show times, call (503) 281-4215 or visit <>. Up the Yangtze will be shown at Portland’s Cinema 21, located at 616 N.W. 21st Avenue, in August. To obtain show times, call (503) 223-4515 or visit <>.