Looking back, Brody was probably right. When Yung Chang’s Up the Yangtze came out in 2008, Richard Brody (at the New Yorker) accused the film of mediocrity. He cited “portentous music, pretty pictures, and easy ironies.” And, yeah, the shoe fits. He also mentions the use of “disembodied narration.” There’s not much, but what is there doesn’t need to be? He calls the movie “anesthetically banal,” and “painful” a breath later. Which is it? Maybe both.
But with the Three Gorges Dam project finally completed in May of this year, it seems irresponsible to complain about what’s essentially an aesthetic banality. The film’s real content is the slow-motion anguish of a self-described “peasant” family whose home will be destroyed, without compensation, by the rising Yangtze (as a result of the dam’s construction.)
And the dam’s construction, to date, has displaced between 1.2 and 1.5 million Chinese, many of them without compensation. Questions have been raised. The primary question seems to be, who is the dam for? And the answer appears to be: the urban Chinese. The “new” Chinese. And I mean “new” in the sense of a new image, a new vision, a new ideal. Of course, new Chinese are born outside of the cool-club every day. They’re born to rural families, engaging as much as they can in rural occupations, and making very little of the kind of currency that makes them valuable to the new, urban, consumer Chinese that the central government is in the interest of supporting.
The rural and farming populations that live along the Yangtze can expect flooding, mud-slides, and the destruction of their homes and livelihoods, but they cannot expect to reap even a slight benefit from the Three Gorges Dam– and certainly no upcoming government programs to bring power to their homes. Urban Chinese may experience a slight increase in the affordability of electricity. Their refrigerators may become slightly cheaper to maintain.
So to accuse the film of taking “pretty pictures” and tacking on “portentous music” might be right, but is it fair? A documentary like Up the Yangtze is a document. We can ask it to be more, but that doesn’t change what it is. As a historical document, it’s compelling and often gorgeous.
Is the issue of the Three Gorges Dam really so full of nuance, of controversy, of sides that it requires a film lively with debate? For anyone watching Up the Yangtze as a document of a real time and real place and real people, the ironies aren’t so “easy” as they are nauseating, disturbing, crushing. A system destroying the individuals it claims to serve.
The question becomes, what do we want out of a documentary? Do we want a waltz among and between the pros and the cons? Do we want a survey of popular and official positions? Or do we want a camera and a director bearing down on the emotional lives of real people in the real world? To me: the latter seems more intriguing, and more useful. The opposition can make their own documentary. The PRC can make their own documentary.
It’s not that I want propaganda; its that I want one person’s version of the truth. In the case of Up the Yangtze it’s millions of peoples’ version of the truth. That’s plenty. Portentous music can’t ruin that.