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Hey Boys and Girls, MG here after an exclusive chat with Yung Chang, the director of the mesmerising documentary, Up the Yangtze. The film spotlights the flooding caused by the Three Gorges Dam and its effects on the people who live on the riverbanks and are about to lose their homes to the rising water. It tells their story with sensitivity and care and a lot of humour.

I’ve mentioned my aversion to documentaries more than once, but this one is a must-see. The personalities in the film are unforgettable and the cinematography is breathtaking and hypnotic. Up the Yangtze gives a strong and resonant voice to people we might never have heard otherwise. My chat with director Chang was equally enlightening and like the film a surprising bit of fun.

Dig it!



Mighty Ganesha: First, Mr. Chang, how did you find the Yu Family?

Yung Chang: First of all, when I researching and developing the film, I hooked up with this cruise company based in Woodside, Queens, actually. And the manager of this boat gave me unrestricted permission to make the film that I wanted to make. So I used that access to be able find my subjects and so I joined the managers of the ship in China when they went to look for all their new employees. Every month, they send out a recruitment team and I would join them and it was kind of like a natural casting process whereby I could meet all these kids who were applying for a job. And that’s how I met Yu Shui and Chen Bo Yu, Cindy and Jerry, respectively, and a whole bunch of other subjects, as well. But I knew from the very the beginning that Yu Shui would be the crux, that she would be the center of the film, and then around her a bunch of other secondary characters. I didn’t know who would end up in the film, but it ended up being Jerry.


MG: It seems like there were a bunch of ways you could’ve taken the film. Did you have an outline for the film? Did you know you would include Jerry’s story on the boat, or the stunning moments with the shopkeeper who is forced to move?

YC: That’s a good question. It took me four years to develop and research the film, so given the amount of time; I think it really helped me to shape where I wanted the story to go in a sense. I mean we’re working in elusive sort of terms it being a documentary film. And also that it’s a Yangtze River film, it’s about a river journey, and it’s meandering. I wanted to have that kind of sensibility of being able to kind of go with the flow, and get off the boat, go somewhere and get back on the boat. And so, I had that kind of structure built in and I also had a built-in ending to the movie; I knew that because I had the Yu family that their home would be flooded, and that would essentially be the end of the movie, when you see that flooding happening. So, that was the very general kind of structure for the film, and then within that, when you’re there on the front making the movie, you’re going with it and something happens here - you’re going to film it and it’s going to make it or not make it into the movie. And then there was also this trajectory of the kids, getting on the boat, going through the boot camp, going through a transformation, but I didn’t know the outcome. So, I guess to not answer your question {Laughs}, there was that somewhat very loose structure involved in the making of the film, didn’t know how it would end. Kind of knew, because there was going to be the flooding, but what was going to happen to each person’s life, I didn’t know.


MG: But you always knew that you were going to focus on a family that was going to be affected by the flooding?

YC: That was one of my stipulations when I was looking for my subjects that I wanted to find first of all, a worker on the boat who had a family that was going to be flooded. In fact, Jerry’s family is also from a migrant family, their home is being flooded. It didn’t make it into the movie. They’re from a middle-class background and it didn’t have the same energy.


MG: How did you first approach the Yu Family? I would think having a filmmaker come into their lives and want to film them would be very strange for them?

YC: It was very careful the process of meeting the subjects. You know when you find them you realise that this is the one; this is the story that you wanna tell. These are the lives you wanna look at in order to tell your story. So it’s a very subtle position you have to put yourself into. It took a while to build that relationship; you have to build a relationship of trust. It doesn’t happen immediately, it happens over a given amount of time. For me it was really important not to feel like I was exploiting my subject. To really level that plane, to look at them in the eye, to be able to look at them eye-to-eye and make sure that this film was gonna be told through their lives, a film about their lives, directed by them in many ways. And on another level, they realised that I had something to offer to them and that was that I was going to be a mentor for Yu Shui, because their daughter was going to go off to work on this boat and they trusted me as the kind of big brother to make sure that she would be okay. And to this day I’m still in touch with Yu Shui.


MG: Are you? I was going to ask if you still had contact with her. Did you guide her in any sense as her mentor? Did you tell her it would be a good idea to be on the boat?

YC: Well, the decision was made by the parents. These kind of life/fate decisions are not by me, these are decisions made by the family. But of course, if she needed something, if she had questions about anything, we would offer her advice as a crew. As a film crew, we were there with her, she was part of the family, so to speak, and so I couldn’t be that sort of silent observer that wouldn’t step in and say something, give her advice in that way. But largely most of the trajectory of that story is really built around her decisions or the decisions of what is going on around her.


MG: You mentioned the time it took to build that trust with the Yu’s how long was it from when you met them to when you started filming them?

YC: Well, Yu Shui was hired to go on to the boat in March of 2006, but she wasn’t hired to get on the boat to work until the summer of 2006, so I had that amount of  time in between to work and develop that time with the family to get into their lives, be able to bring the cameras in and that was how it happened over that period of time.


MG: And how long was the shoot itself?

YC: The shoot itself was about 8 months.


MG: And how long had you had this crazy thought in your head?

YC: This story, this monster? From 2002, that’s when I first experienced one of these cruise ships as a tourist. And then consequently from 2003 until the shooting production period that the time I spent researching and working the film.


MG: And in your experience on the ship, is it as strange as it appears in the film? Are there Westerners dressing up as Ancient Chinese emperors and empresses?

YC: {Laughs} Yeah, what you see are highlights of the experience. For me, always it was a very surreal experience to be on this luxury cruise ship. The contrasts are so enormous in this region that they’re just enunciated when you’re on a cruise boat with Western tourists. For me, this cruise ship was like a microcosm of contemporary China in that above decks you had Western tourists; below decks you had the workers and you had some of the Chinese who succeeded to join the tourist above decks. It was always interesting to me that we were on this lifeline, this river of life, this Yangtze River, approaching the largest dam in the world, which to me was always representative of modernisation, especially in China. Yeah, the cruise ship was an important element metaphorically it said a lot to me.


MG: I wondered about how much access you had. Watching it I thought, ‘What is he doing in the girls’ dormitory?’

YC: {Laughs}


MG: I love that you were able to capture some of those behind the scenes moments like Yu Shui crying in the kitchen, and the coaching for her to smile and be more attractive to everyone in order to work upstairs with the tourists.

YC: That was a very interesting level come to think of it. It’s interesting that you have this superficiality on this boat of “giving face” and showing the best side, and then when you peel off that layer – and that was kind of the point of the film was to dig under the surface and find what was really going on in some ways. And then I found the protests, I found the antique dealer, I found those intimate moments underneath the veneer when you have Yu Shui breaking down and the moments like that.

And on the cruise boat it came about through spending that amount of time with everyone on the boat, getting to know everybody. And the subjects, for example in the dormitory room, these are subjects that I was actually following and filming, so they were kind of inherently connected with me and the process of making the movie, so they allowed me into that chamber.


MG: This is a touchy issue, you uncover some ugly stuff. Has the Chinese government has seen this, and did you have any censorship issues? 

YC: First thing is that I did not shoot with government permission. But the other thing is that the Three Gorges Dam – you can criticize the Three Gorges Dam. It’s not one of those taboo issues like Falun Gong or Tiananmen Square; you can actually talk about it because it’s an environmental issue, so given that, we were able to shoot kind of freely. We would arrive in towns and villages and pull out our camera; people would actually come up to and talk to us, because they thought we were from the local TV station. I shot with a Chinese crew. That was the key thing that helped me make this movie was, one, that I shot with a local crew, filmmakers from China. The other thing is that I’m Chinese, I speak Mandarin, I can kind of melt into that environment, so that allowed us that sort of access. I think that I went with those sort of paranoias, wondering what it would be like to shoot a film illegally in China, but in the end I realised that it’s often done, especially for documentaries. Even look at a movie by Ruby Yang, who won an Oscar for Blood of Yingzhou District, and she shot that under the radar and yet now she’s elevated on the platform of a high filmmaker there. So it’s really interesting how it works and you can never really predict what the outcome will be. And I haven't heard any sort of governmental reaction yet.


MG: Has it screened in China?

YC: We have. We showed the film to an audience of Beijing filmmakers and producers and it was very well received, in fact we’re even looking at the option of having it shown nationally in China, but we’d have to make a couple changes in order to do so.


MG: You show scenes during a protest when there’s an old man on the ground looking like he’s being beaten, I wondered how you got that footage?

YC:  Well, that kind of stuff was filmed clandestinely. We shot that with hidden cameras. And those situations are sort of more sensitive, but I would use my crew as my safety gauge. And if they felt comfortable shooting it, they would shoot it, so that’s why we managed to get something like that. That was a protest against land development, against corruption, that kind of thing. And it’s not uncommon to run into a protest in the middle of the street that happened to me on a couple occasions, actually. I think the statistic is something like 80,000 in 2004 and the number keeps getting higher and higher.


MG: You don’t wonder when people are getting put out of their homes.

YC: I think the common people are beginning to realise they can actually affect change by protest.


MG: Had you seen any other outcry about these people being moved along and made homeless in some cases?

YC: Certainly. A lot of protests are in that Three Gorges hotbed area. There’s a lot. I could list a whole bunch of different instances. It’s always met with some resistance from local authorities. You know the corruption and the problems really exist on a local level, local government. Often it’s this nave central government giving money to the local government and the money’s just not getting there.


MG: You show us a scene of new homes that families who are being relocated will be moving into, yet the Yu’s don’t have that. Why not?

YC: The Yu family is in a kind of unique situation in that they’re not legal residents of the city of Fengdu. You have to apply for this visa, every city you have to apply for resident status, and they didn’t do it.  So they weren’t allowed compensation that other families received, unfortunately. And that’s why they don’t live in one of those new homes. And what’s ironic and it didn’t make it into the film, it’s a bit convoluted, but the family themselves, they’re from a smaller village, a neighbouring village, and after he had moved out of his village, the Three Gorges relocation compensation committee arrived and gave money to all the families in that village, and they didn’t receive any. They have family members who received compensation, but they did not.


MG: How are they doing now?

YC: Well, now, not so good. Both mother and father are unemployed. And this is the kind of epilogue that I think you were gonna ask me, but I’ll get right to it. Well, Yu Shui saw the movie and through seeing the boat she saw her fate, she saw her destiny through the movie. She decided to leave the boat and go back to high school. Our production company helped to pay for her high-school tuition. And consequently we’ve started a fund for the family and you can find that through the website that we have, UptheYangtze.com. And basically we’ve found that it’s really effective, that people want to help this family get out of their situation and it’s going to really change their lives. And so, I think it’s a really sweet ending to a tough situation.


MG: You uncover some candid moments from the subjects in the film. Were people anxious to tell their stories?

YC: Yes, yes! I followed numerous families being affected by the relocation process; they didn’t make it into the movie. It was really not difficult to find people who were upset with this life-changing, catastrophic event. Imagine, how can such a huge event like this be? They said they had to relocate 2 million people. Well, it’s since become 4 million people. Imagine the scope of that. How would they even being to implement the relocation process. There’s gonna be problems. So I found people would gravitate toward us in every city every village we would go to.


MG: Was there a lot of leftover footage?

YC: Well, I shot 200 hours of footage, so, yes.


MG: Was this documentary an easy sell to get financial backing?

YC:  No, it was a very, very difficult to get the money to make the film, that’s why it took four years. And those four years were a constant kind of research/development shoots and trying to rebuild and retell the story in a way that in the end was what I ended up making. I think as a first time filmmaker as a feature-length film, it was not easy to get the money. It didn’t happen until I captured something that was really important which was that interview with the antique dealer, after I showed this contrasted with boot camp footage on the cruise ship that really managed to show the hook of the movie in a unique perspective to talk about modern China. And I think that was the convincing moment. IT wasn’t easy.


MG: The cinematography in the film is truly remarkable, most notably the opening close up shots of the Three Gorges Dam and in the end scenes when the boat is heading toward it, it looks like the gates of hell.

YC: That’s exactly it, very good! I think that the dam was always supposed to be something abstract, something outside the realm of the lives of these people, always on the periphery. And so we open the film with these very abstract images and we close the film with this very mysterious ending. I think other than that China is such a photogenic country, turn the camera on anywhere and you’re gonna capture something. That combined with working with a Chinese cinematographer I think really helps to make a beautiful cinematic film.


MG: You open the film with a quote by Confucius. "By 3 methods we may learn wisdom: first, by reflection which is noblest; second, by imitation which is easiest; and third, by experience which is the bitterest." What did that mean to you?

YC: I thought it was sort of ironic in a way to use that quote. First of all, from it being from the father of Chinese philosophy and to have him make the statement, and that to experience the film, I think it speaks on many levels as a filmmaker to experience the production of making this movie and then actually to share that with an audience and to have them experience the movie as well. It seemed appropriate to talk about contemporary China and the world in that way. That quote set it up well.


MG: It seems like that quote could also be applied to the dam. It seems like ecologically it’s going to be a nightmare.

YC: I think so, too. And I think it’s already beginning to have that resonance. The Chinese government admitted in the Fall of 2007 that there could be a potential catastrophe in the region, and then they added a potential 2 million people having to be moved.


MG: That shot of that little dancing girl is the most bizarre thing…

YC: That’s good, I’m glad you picked up on that!


MG: It’s like something out of a David Lynch film.

YC: Okay, so I arrived in this small town – it was like my Herzogian moment, okay? – the dancing chicken. I needed to find a way to close my own voice, in the film it’s the last thing I say before we go to see the rest of the movie. And I shot that on my cell phone. I bought this pirated, black-market cell phone, and I filmed her on that little video. And that’s the result of what you see that’s the moment that I filmed on this camera.


MG: What does she represent?

YC:  For me, on a simple level, I think she represented the future. And she was kind of like the ghostly image of what I felt Yu Shui was going to become. On another level, it was just so hard for me to encapsulate how to close my own opinions about what I was experiencing that when I came upon that image that seemed to summarise it. I can’t put it into words exactly, but it was haunting I think, it was just that unsettling sort of vision.


MG: What did you take away from the experience of shooting this film?

YC: Well first of all I learned a lot about myself. And then deeper than that I worked with a 16-year old girl and I think to have… I don’t know how to explain it. What kept me going to finish the film because it took many, many years and there was an enormous amount of pressures to complete the movie, Many time when you’re making a film there’s all these frustrations of dealing with the drama of your crew and drama of the circumstances and the conditions, whatever it may be. But what keeps you going to make the film is to know that you’re making the film through the eyes of somebody that trusts you and you work with them eye-to-eye, and that kept me going. And at the end, maybe that’s what I’m walking away with, that I was able to share the experience of somebody that just seemed to collide with the story I was making and it became much more than that.


MG: I wanted to ask about your grandfather, who inspired the movie and also sings a song in the film. Has he seen it yet?

YC: He has! And similar to Jerry, this is my maternal grandfather he’s a kind of a character. Actually, through the website you can download his album. He felt that there should’ve been more of his music in the film, so he wanted me to play the entire thing. We will not stop even to this day, he tried to tell me to use it in the end credits. He loved the movie.


MG: Does he see it that way you do that everything is changing? 

YC: Oh, yeah he won’t go back to China, he just can’t. It’s not the same place for him. He used to live in Beijing, he’s a Beijinger, and he lived in a hutong that was the old kind of a network of homes and it’s very historical. And when I went to his home in 1997 it was still there, when I went back in 2007, it was gone. Skyscrapers had replaced it. It’s a very different world there now. Culturally I think things are the same; physically I think the landscape has changed.


MG: Where were those nighttime urban shots filmed with all the neon?

YC: That is the city of Chongqing. That is an unbelievable city, nobody knows about it. It’s the largest municipality in the world. 30 million people live in that municipality, it’s huge.


MG: What directors do you admire?

YC: Oh, there’s so many influences that I have it’s almost like it’s a film-to-film thing. For Up the Yangtze, it was Robert Altman, it was John Cassavetes, Jia Zhangke, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, you know? Even Wong Kar-Wai, all these influences in there. It’s funny that the references are more fiction, but I really like that style of filmmaking, it’s very spontaneous, almost like documentary in many ways. That’s how I wanted to make my film.


MG: There’s a scene where you film Jerry doing karaoke to someone. I can’t tell if it’s Leslie Cheung or Andy Lau…

YC: {Laughs} It was Andy Lau, it’s Andy Lau, yeah! Good one!


MG: During that scene he’s doing an elaborate toast with his friends and I’m thinking, ‘Wait, now he’s acting.’ Did you have to pull him or any of the others back from that?

YC: What’s really funny is that versus Yu Shui, Jerry was a performer from the get-go. Actually, he found me; I didn’t find him or anything. It’s the camera. I was filming at the recruitment process and he was there and he walked into the room and he just honed in on us. And he wanted to be a part of it and as you see from the film he’s very different than Yu Shui, I mean, he’s looking into the lens, he’s very performative. No matter how hard I tried to tell him not, it was his thing. And after a while I just had to take it as his character and It think it worked in the end it worked for who he is in that movie. That’s interesting, that there is that kind of presence. The camera’s always there and you make those sort of decisions wherever you are that people know, you’re there you’re there. The Yu family were very comfortable around the camera because it’s something that just didn’t exist in their vocabulary as a thing to be aware of. We were there but we didn’t know what was going into the lens. So it was interesting on that level to make the film was very instructional.


MG: Did you know that you that he was going to have that little introduction before he gets on the boat and end his story coming off the boat? Did you plan to follow him further?

YC: At the time of filming, I was hedging my bets between him and another girl, also actually the guy who tells the joke at the beginning, Campbell, he was a main subject. I mean, I didn’t know where I was going with Jerry. For all my subjects, I started before they got on the boat, so that was always the opening of the film that we’d follow a little bit of their lead-in to getting on the ship. I didn’t know what would happen to Jerry. I didn’t know where it was gonna go.



~ Mighty Ganesha

April 21st, 2008


PS: For more about the film or to find out how to help Yu Shui and her family, please visit UptheYangtze.com


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