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Three Gorges Dam on Film

August 5, 2008

I’ve been reading as much as I can about the Three Gorges Dam project on the Yangtze River in China since I found out about it a few years ago. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s the world’s largest hydroelectric project and, begun in 1994 and expected to end by 2011, is hugely controversial because of the environmental and humanitarian costs. Around 2 million people are being displaced, and many are hired by corrupt government agencies as demolition workers – paid to tear down their own towns. There’s a lot of information out there on the web, and National Geographic has written a lot about it.

This week I saw two very different films that involve the area and the project. In the theatre was a documentary called UP THE YANGTZE. It follows a luxury cruise ship meant to give tourists a final look at the Yangtze as it is. We never stick with any tourist for very long (mostly stereo-typical ugly Americans – they are horrible and embarrassing) but do follow two very different locals employed as low-level servants on the ship. There’s something oddly staged about much of it, and the sentiment is far too simplistic: “China has lost it’s way and forgotten it’s past” is not a very nuanced reading of this hugely complex situation. Nonetheless, I’m glad I saw it and would even recommend it simply to bear witness to the effects on it’s displaced people.

from the movie:

The other film is one I’ve been dying to see for two years, STILL LIFE by genius mainland director Jia Zhangke. I first fell in love with him when I saw UNKNOWN PLEASURES and then waited with baited breath for THE WORLD, which I felt fell just short of being his masterpiece. I believe that STILL LIFE is finally that masterpiece. I guess other folks did as well since it won the Golden Lion Award in Venice last year!

Like UP THE YANGTZE, STILL LIFE utilizes the Gorges Project as the backdrop and overriding metaphor for change in it’s characters lives, albeit in a much more subtle way. Jia’s characters are always lost, wondering souls on the verge of transition – usually a transition that they have limited control of – and STILL LIFE follows two different people returning to their about-to-be-flooded home villages in search of a lost spouse. There are no easy metaphors here about being caught in the sweep of history as we see in most 5th Generation films, and no easy lesson to be taken away.

Jia has more in common with Iranian Cinema sensibilities than with any Chinese Directors (Although you should make no mistake: He is very versed in Asian cinema history as THE WORLD has passing nods to Ozu and others; and Hou Hsiao Hsien is certainly a visual and rhythmic influence). While the film seems to wade around in primarily ultra-realist fictional territory, you start to realize that the non-fictional world of the project has inevitably creeps in (The main character is playing himself more or less)….and also wonderful moments of Magic Realism (If you look closely)!

Unfortunately, it doesn’t come out in the States until Oct 15th, and the Chinese copy I watched was OK but pretty dark (It’s shot in “rich, impossibly crisp” HD – which almost every review points out is the perfect medium for the geography – I had to rewind and squint to catch some of the “Magical Realism”). Bookmark this page or set your calenders because this is not only intensely moving, but a great window into a substrata of China’s tenuous progress – waiting for the next great deluge.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. dookieplatters permalink
    August 11, 2008 7:42 PM

    Your description of the tourists in “Up the Yangtze” reminded me of 1988’s “Cannibal Tours”, where obnoxious Euro-Aussie travellers on a river in Papau New Guinea unknowingly have the camera turned on them. I saw it in a Visual Anthropology class, where, upon being requested to bring in an ethnographic study on film, I showed up with “Trekkies.” I think “Nanook of the North” was already checked out at Hollywood Video…great post (and what’s that song in the youtube clip?).


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