q & a with up the yangtze director yung chang

I've already expressed quite a bit how much I love Yung Chang's documentary Up the Yangtze. It's a powerful, beautiful, provocative look at China's Three Gorges Dam project—a contested symbol of the Chinese economic miracle—and its impact on the lives of those of live along the river's edge. I can't recommend it enough.

The film has been screening in limited theaters in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, and will continue its theatrical run in select U.S. cities throughout the summer. To see when it'll be playing near you, visit the Zeitgeist Films website here.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the chance to sit down with director Yung Chang and talk about the character in his film, the impact of hydroelectric mega-dam projects, and the complicated process of making Up the Yangtze. Read on:

How's it going? It seems like you've been all over the place lately.

It's been a long road, kind of tour, with the movie. I'm kind of like a roadie for the film, I've been kind of following it around... or a slave or ambassador, whatever. So I've been traveling the world. I just got in from Poland. We're releasing the film in Poland and they're going to have a premiere on a boat. So I've been traveling with the film a lot. It's interesting to see the difference audience reactions in every country. It's always a slightly different response but generally I'd say Westerners have the same sort of connection to the film. So that's been kind of interesting, that no matter where I go people have the same sort of impressions about China. It's such a mysterious place for people... it's so weird how its so exoticized that way. My film has kind of shattered some preconceptions that people have.

I read that the idea for your film actually came to when you went on a farewell cruise with your family as a tourist.

Yeah, yeah, I have to thank my parents for a lot of inspiration for the films that I've made. I made a previous shorter documentary and it was my mother who introduced me to the subject so I owe her a lot and I'm waiting for them to introduce me to my next subject. They took me as a guest to visit China on one of these luxury cruise ships with my grandfather and my parents and it was a really... I mean, I was kind of a jaded tourist. I knew what I was getting into so I brought a camera with me and I was actually looking for filming something about the culture of tourism and the tourism of culture, but it became much bigger than that. The whole idea of this boat became a metaphor for China for me, like Jia Zhang Ke made The World and that was his metaphor for the world, and this cruise ship was representative of a similar sort of approach. So much could be said about contemporary China and the question of progress through this cruise ship on this Yangtze River. For me, overwhelming layered and metaphorical.

Is there any particular moment while on the cruise ship that made you think, this is ridiculous—it has to be a movie?

There were two moments, and these were, I think, exemplary of the kind of contrast that I was witnessing. One of them was the marching band, and that marching band playing "Yankee Doodle Dandy" in this city of Chongqing, which is like a scene of out a fiction film, like Blade Runner. So imagine that backdrop of this arcade-lit sky and then this marching band playing "Yankee Doodle Dandy," and on this river that was lit up like an electric current and then this sort of roly poly cruise ship. That was an inspiring moment for me. That elevated the idea to something cinematic for me.

And then, on the ship, I got to know a bartender on the boat, his name was Willy and actually he told me a lot of stuff—and this was in 2002. He told me that his grandmother would rather be drowned by the rising waters than have to leave her ancestral home. And that for me, those two extreme moments, were the inspiration to make the film.

How did you initially go about finding your subjects? Where did they come from?

The subjects, I found through the recruitment process. I found them through the cruise company. They go to look for new employees in all the local river towns. And I was able to join them. And for me, it was kind of a natural casting process where I could kind of be witness to all these kids signing up for interviews. Yu Shui and Jerry and a whole handful of other subjects signed up for an interview and at that time I met my subjects and began to follow them. That was in the winter when they were hired, and they didn't have to get on the boat until the summer. So I had this natural sort of timeline to do the film, to be able to film this process.

In watching this film, I was amazed at the level of access to the ship, and the level of intimacy you had with your subjects. How were you able to achieve that?

Well, it wasn't easy. It took a lot of patience, especially spending a lot of time with the family without the camera. After I gained their trust, they could open up and be comfortable around me. I mean, for me, it's important to have a relationship that's not sort of like filmmaker and subject. For me it's much more interrelated—it's much more like a family, and that's how you have to gain their trust. I think that the relationship extends beyond the day when you see the final cut. It's not the end of the day for me. I'm still in touch with the family. I think that was really important, so that they could see in me a big brother. And Yu Shui even calls me "Big Brother" to this day. And I think the family also felt that I would be a mentor for Yu Shui when she left to work on the cruise ship, that I would be there to make sure she was okay. So for the family, especially, there was a real period of building that trust, building that long relationship so that you're not exploiting your subject. And for the other subjects it was a similiar process. But the most important was with the Yu family.

There's one moment that sticks out for me, and a lot of people I've talked to. It's when you're interviewing that shopkeeper, and he breaks down and gets very emotional and upset. I think at that moment, there's an interesting tension going on. I feel like he really wants to say that he supports what is good for the country, but...

Isn't it true? There's a conflict going on in everybody—even in me—and I think it comes out in the film. On the one hand, I see the benefits of what the people want in terms of progress. Who can deny that, you know? On the other hand, as westerners, we can step back and see the other perspective. We look at this progress and see a catastrophe happening. So when you zoom in and focus on the antique dealer and he's selling the castaway items of relocatees, in fact, I found that very ironic. And that was my initial interest in interviewing him. And as we were talking to him, it turns out that he was a migrant, his farm was flooded, and he used to have a very fertile land that disappeared. He got very, very emotional and I think that sort of conflict is representative of a lot of people in the Yangtze Basin. The ultimate question—how do you put a monetary value on your ancestral homeland?—is met with a lot of controversy. And that's what I was witnessing, that people were expressing their unhappiness or pent up sort of feelings would come out. The camera is an amazing thing in a way that it was able to open up and be a mirror into somebody's soul and have these sort of... it's amazing how it works when you're working with an intimate film crew. Things just happen sometimes, and it's unbelievable.

What's your personal opinion on the Three Gorges project?

I think that my opinion about mega-dam projects, and not just the Three Gorges, but around the world, is that they're an antiquated way of creating energy. In fact, they cause more negative effects than benefits. And for me to be on the ground in the Three Gorges region and make this movie, was a very first-hand experience of the negative effects. And even now that the Chinese government has admitted in 2007, in September, they admitted there could be a potential catastrophe in the region, that as a result of environmental, ecological problems they may have to relocate another 2 million people. That's crazy. So I think that in and of itself is an admittance of the sort of fallacy of the hydroelectric projects of this scale. And you're seeing that in case studies with dams around the world. In South America, in Africa, and even Australia, dams have ultimately caused major problems that are overlooked. There's a very good book I would recommend, it's called Deep Water by Jacques Leslie. It's a very fascinating look at different perspectives on dam building around the world. It's a good book.

You spoke a little bit about audience reactions to the film. I think this film will mean different things to different people. What are some of the reactions that you've encountered, depending on the audience or location?

I think that's a really interesting question. In one way, I think, for me it's a very personal experience. Any film-going experience is a subjective experience. And I find that interesting because I found that also true with tourists in China. That Western or even Chinese tourists, they go to see something and they're going to leave that place with their own opinions and own perspectives on what they experienced. So I think that kind of translated into the theater-going audience after they had seen my movie. I mean, it's almost divisive. Some people feel that it's not critical enough of China. These are usually westerners. There are people that feel that it's a balanced sort of look, an indemnification of progress in China.

On the other hand, I've had a split opinion in Chinese audiences where—and these I'd say are overseas Chinese or the diaspora, usually recent immigrants—some people feel that it's very emotional and very moving, and a kind of realistic portrayal of the Chinese experience. Others feel—and I think these are the sort of nationalists, patriotic sort of people, that it's an anti-China film. So it's really interesting. I think I made a movie that's meant to provoke questions and not to be heavy-handed with an answer. I really wanted to make a movie that lets you decide, and I think that's the power of what cinema can do. Movies are not essays. They're meant to provoke and I hope that's what this movie can do. And I like that people connected with opinions on this film.

Were there particular ideas or narrative threads that you wanted to explore going into this? What were some things that emerged while filming that you didn't anticipate?

Well, I went in as a traveler, so I wanted to be really open in this sort of Herzog-ian way, to be very open to what I could come upon. And so you have these tangential moments, where I find an old woman praying, or where I find the antique dealer, and these things sort of happened spontaneously as I traveled along the river. I wanted to include that in the film as a sort of meandering storytelling technique. But what would be the thread to keep it together would be the one story of the girl, Yu Shui. Because it's documentary, you can't predict the endings of things. You don't know where it's going, although I had this sort of built-in structure where I knew it was a river journey, that we would begin and end at the dam, and there would be a flooding moment. But everywhere in between, I didn't know where the storylines were going. So, in fact, it was surprising to me what happened to Jerry, and what happened to Yu Shui. I didn't know that was going to be the end result.

And because it's a documentary, I followed other subjects as well. A handful, maybe five or six other subjects that didn't make it into the film. I followed a family, a village protesting the land development of their ancestral graves, because the local government wanted to build the new relocated homes on top of their graves. They protested and managed to get money out of it, actually—they blocked the road and prevented the construction crew from digging up the land. I filmed that, but it didn't make it into the movie. I also filmed the storyline of another girl on the boat, who was an orphan, whose uncle paid for her English education, but she was on the boat working to pay back her debt.

There were a lot of good stories I was following, but it really came down to fitting something in a 90-minute structure and telling the strongest story possible. And having filmed 200 hours of footage, I think this was the best of everything. I even filmed an angle where... there was an idea at the beginning of a kind of personal reflection. I'm so glad that I didn't pursue it in the film. One of the mandates in allowing me to shoot on the cruise ship was that I had to make a promotional video for this cruise company. So I filmed that process of me making the promotional video. It was a thread that we threw away in the editing process.

What were some of the challenges you encountered in getting the film made?

Oh boy. It took four years to make it. As a first-time feature filmmaker, people were hesitant to give me money. Early on, I had the support of the National Film Board of Canada because I had made a film with them before, and they were very nice. But to get the other chunk of money was not easy. We appealed to broadcasters, and it took four years to finally get the money. Research development trips, shooting additional footage, and creating a demo that was able to convince people of the storyline of the movie.

The other challenge was being a huáyì—an overseas Chinese—living in China, working with a Chinese film crew, and working out those conflicts that I had. And it permeates into the film, so I'm glad I wasn't obstinate about the process of shooting it. So I would debate with my crew, and initially they felt that I was making an anti-China movie, something negative about peasants that nobody cares about apparently in China. But then over the course of the movie eventually they came back to me and said that they could really see the value of this movie. They felt that it was an important story to tell. So that was important for me, the kind of language and cultural debate that I would have while shooting the film in China.

Did it help that you are ethnically Chinese, as opposed to a white American or European filmmaker?

Oh yeah, totally. I don't think a white person could have made the same movie. It would've been a totally different story, and they wouldn't have had the access that I had. I was sort of melted into the environment, and shot like a Chinese would shoot. In fact, we would arrive in villages and towns and I would pull out my camera, and people would come up to us because they thought we were from the local TV station. And something interesting to me is that it's not illegal to talk about the Three Gorges Dam, or criticize corrupt officials, or talk about environmental problems. It's okay to do that in China. A lot of people think it's just this really totalitarian state, when in fact it's in some ways not unlike shooting in the U.S. or Canada—there's just as much restriction. You try to pull out a camera in a hotel or shopping mall or school, you're going to have problems. We would encounter the same sort of issues. So shooting without permission was not a big deal for us.

Can we talk a little bit about the look of the film? It's amazing. What was your general approach going into the way the film should look? What were some of your aesthetic influences?

Well, I instructed my crew that I wanted to make cinema, not documentary. That was the first thing that I made very clear. With my cinematographer, who's from Beijing and graduated from the Beijing Film Academy—they're filmmakers in their own right, all of the people I worked with—we established this sort of common thread, that I like films by Jia Zhang Ke, and that I like Taiwanese New Wave—Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang.

The kind of elements that I think they couldn't understand were the western influences, the kind of ironies and contrasts that I wanted to get, and that was up to me to find. The kind of boot camp humor that I think they couldn't understand, and the humor in the tourists that I think was very difficult for them to see as well. So that sort of Gosford Park/Upstairs, Downstairs thing was not immediately relevant to my crew's experience. But for me it was.

An inspiration is Robert Altman, John Cassavetes, and these Chinese films. And a great Chinese documentary called This Happy Life, which was made a few years ago, I think in the '90s, maybe. It's an amazing portrait of these two railway workers and their families, and it's like a fiction film, but it's documentary. I loved it. And there's a movie called Blind Shaft by Li Yang, and that is an amazing film too. Using non-professional actors, it was a fiction film... but the way he shot it and the way he used the camera, that was an inspiration.

So I really wanted to... I mean, to break it down, it was like... there's so much beauty in the cinematography, and I think that almost complements the tourists' perspective, or the glazed, glistening perspective of the beauty of the region. And then in contrast, the human story of the peasant, and the antique dealer, and the real human story behind that veneer of beauty. So in some ways it was like a postcard approach I wanted to capture, and then to peel that back and explore what was happening underneath.

You mentioned that you've been following up with your subjects. I read that you set up a fund to help the Yu family.

Yeah, that's right. You know, tomorrow the father's going to have the eye operation on his second eye. He needs a cataract operation. Last week he had his left eye operated on, and this week it's his right eye. And this is money we've raised from audiences seeing the movie, being moved, and being engaged. I think that's a great way... the power of a documentary, that we can give back. So yeah, the website has a link to the fund, and we helped pay Yu Shui's high school tuition—she decided to leave the boat and go back to high school. So all these things have sort of come together now after finishing the movie. It's a nice kind of Cinderella story.

Do you know if they were affected at all by the earthquake?

They're okay. I've been in touch with them, and my relatives in the area. Everybody's all right. The epicenter's really in the Chengdu area, but it was felt in the Chongqing region.

I was looking on the map, and it's not far.

No, it's not far at all. In fact, I don't think it's being reported, but I think there's bits of damage in the Three Gorges Dam. And I really wonder what effect the dam has on the size and magnitude of the earthquake.

What was your creative and professional background going into this project? This is your first feature...

I studied cinema in Montreal at a university called Concordia. My mentor was this Polish guy named Andre Herman, who just passed away a couple of years ago. He was really inspirational for me in looking at film as art, and being aware of studying film and literature and whatever, just kind of immersing yourself in that. Then I went to study theater in New York at the Neighborhood Playhouse, and studied the Meisner Technique. And that was influential, I think, in how to communicate with people. I mean, it's not like voodoo or anything, but it's really a tool. So I learned a lot from that technique. And then in between that, going to university and the Neighborhood Playhouse, I made a short film, a 45-minute documentary called Earth to Mouth about Chinese farmers living in Ontario, growing Chinese vegetables for the community and working with Mexican migrant workers. I like that movie because it's all in Cantonese and Spanish—not a word in English!

I know the Up the Yangtze is opening up in U.S. cities throughout the summer. What are you working on next?

I'm working on a film about opium—the documentary version of Traffic. I'm also producing a film with a collaborator on my film about the Spring Festival, where for two years he filmed a migrant family as they try to go home for five days during the Chinese New Year, and it's chaos. I'm working another film in China, a documentary about street kid performers whose parents make them perform in the street in southern China. It'll be kind of an intimate film about their story.

What makes you angry?

Oh shit! I should've prepared, because I know you ask this question. Well, since we've been talking about my movie, and documentary and all this stuff... I think what makes me angry is patriotism. Nationalism. Narrow-mindedness, from all sides and perspectives. Can I keep going? Bad airplane food. I've been traveling for a year on airplanes. There can be some really bad airplane rides. The air in airplanes can be so dry. I'll stop there.

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