Up the Yangtze

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I recently had a dinner with a cousin who is working in China. He said any businessman worth his gold watch should be asking himself and every business associate he meets with, “What’s your China angle?” That night I watched Up the Yangtze, a most remarkable documentary about how the Three Gorges Dam project is affecting the lives of people who live along the Yangtze River.

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Everyone in this film, from the tourists to the tour guides to the exiled shack family, has swallowed some sort of Kool-Aid. (I use Kool-Aid not in the Jonestown sense but in the sense that it isn’t complete nutrition. [Kool-Aid must hate either usage.]) There’s a quote from Confucius in the opening titles: “By three ways may we learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; third, by experience, which is the bitterest.” The movie shows the main characters doing all three, however, when they’re doing the first staring off into space, they often look as though they’ve been hit by a truck.

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The main protagonist is a young farmer girl forced to work on a tour boat because her grades weren’t good enough for a scholarship and her family can’t afford to send her on. They need her income yesterday. None of her scenes appear in the deleted scenes section of the DVD. The Times praised the movie for refusing to editorialize, and so it’s telling watching the deleted scenes which feature the most middle-class, ambitious characters –the senior tour guide and bellboy. They are praising China and assuring themselves of success in a way which is charming, convincing, and naive all at the same time.

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