Viewers experience contrasts of Yangtze 

By Karen Herland

Magnifying glass

When Yung Chang agreed to travel along the Yangtze river with his parents in 2002, he couldn't have imagined that trip would lead to another family trip, this time to the Sundance film festival where he would be nominated for the documentary Grand Jury prize in world cinema.

Up the Yangtze premiered at the Festival du nouveau cinéma just over a year ago. Since then the film has had a flurry of attention, including a dozen awards, honourable mentions and nominations from film festivals around the world.

"It was pretty unexpected," said Chang. "I think the film was quite timely, it came out just before the Olympics and people wanted to know more about the country."

Chang described the Yangtze's importance as a region of historical significance considered a hotbed of Chinese culture. Once there, he was struck by the contrasts between the past and the challenges faced by those living under the weight of the controversial Three Gorges Dam project. The project's promise of abundant hydro-electric power is balanced by the relocation of over a million people, and the flooding of various historic sites and relics.

That clash between the old and new is what struck Chang. "We arrived in Chongqing city and there were so many contrasts in what I was seeing. This neon backdrop of the city and this roly-poly cruise ship."

Chang, with two short films under his belt and a film degree from Concordia, decided to produce a feature length film.

His story follows two young locals as they adapt to their first real job on a cruise ship, their first contact with foreigners and the gap between that and the families they left behind that are literally and figuratively being swallowed up by the Yangtze. His two protagonists negotiate the artificial world on the floating resort; one that celebrates the history and culture of the region while profiting off its imminent demise.

Chang received support from the National Film Board to secure funding. He was able to return to China for a year to shoot the film. "We got over 200 hours of footage, and initially followed seven people," he said of the process.

He speaks Mandarin and hired a Chinese crew. Even so, he needed help to understand the local dialect. He found a translator who also makes films (who did the sound for Up the Yangtze). He relied on the local crew to help him negotiate through the systems there. "We often didn't have permits, but they were willing to shoot anyway."

On the other hand, the crew's expectations took some getting used to. "We could be shooting the most heated, emotional moment, but if it was 6 p.m., everything had to stop for dinner. It was hard for me, because as the director, I was driven to keep going."

The film took three years in production and post production, with the support of the NFB and the film's co-producer EyeSteelFilms. Chang is currently editing a project by the translating filmmaker who worked on Yangtze.

And his parents have maintained their participation. "They're travelling to the film festival in Barrie, Ontario, to present the film and do a Q & A." And even though the film is only now being released on DVD, they "found a DVD in the Pacific Mall in Markham Ontario. It's wonderful when you can find your film in a pirated version."


Concordia University