Finally finally finally got to see Up the Yangtze, on the fourth try. Lots of handheld camera work, which makes me physically ill; even the memory is making me queasy as I write this. Staggering film nonetheless. China has always been fascinating, but for the last ten years it’s become, or has gone back to being, the tumultuous center of all human life, or maybe it always was and I am just less young and foolish than I used to be. There are cities in China I have barely heard of, that are three times the size of London. Did I say staggering already?

Up the Yangtze starts as a nostalgic cruise by a Chinese Canadian director down the Three Gorges, one of the last such cruises before the dam gates close in 2011 and the entire region is flooded. Then the film dives into the lives of two of the employees on the cruise ship. Jerry Chen Bo Yu is a goodlooking teenage boy from a middle-class, urban family; but he is not a fraction as handsome and charming as he thinks he is.

Yu Shui is only sixteen. Her family has been farming the land abandoned by the people of Fengdu the Ghost City as they moved out of the way of the floodwaters; which means that over the course of the film, the patched-together shack itself disappears beneath the river. The time-lapse sequence in which we watch the farm drown is as effective a memento mori as I have seen. Nevertheless this was a smart choice on the part of Yu Shui’s parents, as these desperately poor, illiterate people grew corn and potatoes there and were able to raise three healthy children, at least for a while.

Yu Shui wants to go to university and become a scientist, but there is no money for her to finish high school (and she didn’t do well enough to earn a scholarship.) So she ends up on the cruise ship, learning English and crying into filthy sinks after endless washing-up. I had jobs like that myself as a teenager, but it was to pay my horse’s vet bills, not to feed my mum and dad. And in any case I sucked at that kind of work and swore to get a job sitting on my butt, and sure enough thanks to my parents’ generosity and other large chunks of unearned privilege, I did. My heart went out to Yu Shui and to all the people like her, who deserve better.

(The Westerners don’t come across well at all. For a start, we’re funny-looking, with our weird pink faces and blue eyes like cold marbles and colourless wavy hair. But worse, we are arrogant sons of bitches. One woman says to Jerry, as she’s leaving the ship: “I have to congratulate you. You were much less obtrusive than I expected you to be.” He feels pretty much the same way about her.)

Werner Herzog gets thanked in the acknowledgements and, like Encounters at the End of the World, Up the Yangtze works better than most science fiction. We don’t need to imagine contact when it’s happening all the time, between people who might as well be from different planets: Canada and China. The film achieves a lot, but I think what I will remember longest is the shy, complicated heroism of Yu Shui’s father and mother. “How could we do this to you,” her mother asks Yu Shui, “if we had a choice?”

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