All about the Three Gorges Dam: Up the Yangtze/ Before the Flood/ Still Life
This essay is not about the Three Gorges Dam, but about the films relating to it. Borrowing Raymond Carver’s famous sentence to see the question ‘What we talk about when we talk about the Three Gorges Dam.’ Specifically, it is more about documentary films on the issue of China’s change. Up the Yangtze is the main body to be discussed from both aesthetic and political aspects. Firstly, some metaphorical expressions will be explored, and then another documentary Before the Flood will be invited to the aesthetical analysis. What follows is the visual representation of both films, plus, the surreal style a docudrama Still Life brings in. Lastly, next comes to the exploration of political implication, mostly in Up the Yangtze. Three films connect with each other in terms of the comparison of each idiosyncrasy. Even though the Three Gorges Dam is not the major subject here, however, it is a joint point of the three films. And it is mentioned everywhere in this essay. For this reason, the title appears to be so.
Metaphorical Expression in Up the Yangtze
The idea of choosing Up the Yangtze stems from my interest in metaphorical representation in the film. The metaphors are not only aesthetical but also political, in terms of the subjects and cinematic expression. As director’s first impression toward the Three Gorges Dam area (Fengdu), it was ghostlike and mysterious, as well as reflecting famous Chinese mythology, the Gates of Hell. Therefore, the place has already provided enormous metaphorical materials at the first place. Not mention the Three Gorges Dam itself represents endless controversies and contrasts, like what director’s narrative in the beginning of the film: ‘Imagine the Grand Canyon turned into a lake.’ Despite the fact, the contrasts revealing in Up the Yangtze are simply a handful of all.
The major contrast can be found on the protagonists of the film. A sixteen year old girl Yu Shui, whose peasant family background represents those hundred millions of uneducated, extremely poor people in China. They belong to the bottom layer of social hierarchy, as well as to the old China. The other protagonist is a nineteen year old young man Chen Bo Yu, who is epitomised the One Child Policy generation from middle class families. They embrace capitalism and reckon themselves as mainstream of the new China. Even though both subjects’ backgrounds utterly differ from each other, however, their fates are collectively and deeply connected with the river and the construction of the dam, as the tagline revels: ‘The River that erased her (Yu Shui) past will write her future’.
The structure of the Up the Yangtze therefore implies that it is a film hoping to capture the change of China. The Three Gorges Dam is just an implication or metaphor as the Gates of Hell, after going through everything will change. No matter the change represents the process of moving to modernisation or capitalization, most of the films about the Three Gorges Dam issue focus on the same group of people: locals or ordinary people in bottom class of society. Like another documentary Before the Flood by two local directors, and a docudrama Still Life by iconic director Jia Zhangke, all reflect the reality of plights and struggles that the Three Gorges Dam project affected local residents have. Nevertheless, among all of these resembling topic films, structurally Up the Yangtze seems to be the most traditional and steady. According to director Yung Chang, he intended to utilise the most traditional documentary narration in order to catch the most extensive audience. On the other hand, it is also the most unusual one in terms of point of observation.
What makes Up the Yangtze unique from other films about the Three Gorges Dam is perhaps the identity of the director. His west-east mixed background places his viewpoint in a special spot of the film. Through this in-between angle to see, plus director’s sensitivity of culture difference, a few contrasts emerge even more visibly. Such as the foreigner tourists on the boat dress like Chinese emperor and empress, and Chinese boat attendants are given English names. Comparing with other films, a few more exotic elements are explored in Up the Yangtze. A sentence from Patrick Keiller’s film London, thereafter becoming a book’s title, describes about London, ‘It’s so exotic and so homemade’, actually evokes the paradoxical notion that a nation could at the same time both very familiar and strange. This concept that induces some senses of conflicting aesthetic also applies to aforementioned scenes in Up the Yangtze.
That is to say, the aesthetic contrasts embedded in several metaphors in Up the Yangtze are deeply aroused by culture and ideology differences. Like the cruise boat, a microcosm of the world, carries various layers of cultural, hierarchical and emotional representation. More than that, the existence of the cruise boat indicates a farewell journey along the Yangtze River to say goodbye to the scenery (and the old China) that later on will be swallowed by rising water when construction of the Three Gorges Dam is completed.
The element of disappearance in stories has long been considered mysterious and sometimes beautiful, although at the same time most of cases are unpleasant or even tragic. Another aesthetic contrast therefore appears in the process of farewell journey itself. To western tourists, it is a journey to catch the last gaze of the old China; to local residents, it is a journey to participate in the rising power of their own nation; to the director, it is a journey to retrieve his personal root; to audiences, it is a journey to witness the change of China. The director’s unique background includes above all the viewpoints, and placing the film in a relatively ambiguous position.
Another Documentary: Before the Flood
Unlike Up the Yangtze, another documentary Before the Flood (Yang Mo) gives out different look and viewpoint on similar theme. The latter lets the images demonstrate the direct impact to the local residents without explicit judgments. Several explosion scenes suggest how easy and fast disappearance can be, in sharp contrast to how difficult and time consuming to establish them. Indeed, it is more straightforward and powerful. However, the ambiguity of change and modernization captured in Up the Yangtze, on the other hand, provides more space to imagination. That is to say, viewer is relatively easy to interpret and reflect their own thoughts through watching Up the Yangtze. Although not many metaphorical expressions are used in Before the Flood, but as a documentary it reaches more closely to the representation of objective reality, in another words, it is more observational, as well as more attached to verité-style documentary filmmaking.
Interestingly, the English film title Before the Flood slightly differs from the original Chinese one, Yan Mo (淹沒). The direct translation means ‘to submerge’, ‘to flood’, ‘to swallow up’, and it actually suggests more layers of meanings. In many ways, the interpretation of the film therefore could be more abstractive. Although the major subject of the film is straightforwardly aiming to the force evacuation of residents before the Yangtze River rises and floods everything. But what the film truly conveys is even more and bigger than that. Excerpt for the physical things will be swallowed up, many other abstract things such as tradition or faith and so forth will too, not literally by water, but by the whole process of modernisation. From this notion, Before the Flood seems not merely talking about the Three Gorges Dam, but the whole China. Building the biggest Dam in the world at some point actually represents China’s ferociously speedy economic development, which is one of the fastest in the world. However, it causes endless conflicts and sufferings to lower class people; possibly, it is the price China needs to pay. Not only in Before the Flood, but also in Up the Yangtze can we see this so-called ‘the price of modernisation.’ On the other hand, both documentaries are likely to be the epitome of China’s development in the future. As Before the Flood director Li Yifan once addressed in an interview, ‘I’m not making a film about how the city is flooded by the Yangtze River, but a film about how the wave of modernisation and the transform of humanity will flood this place.’
In fact, we all can witness a vital element that has been represented in these two documentaries. That is change of China. In particular, the both films attempt to explore and discover the historical part of China, not only documenting but also reflecting it as a contrast to what China has become nowadays. The traditional culture aspect in both films, especially, is seen as a nostalgic introspection rather than a cultural responsibility of documentary filmmaker. Up the Yangtze starts with a quote from Confucius: “By three 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.” More or less it hints that the Three Gorges Dam project might be an experience and reflection for any other future development in China.
No matter how bitter it will be, one thing is assured that many things inevitably will be lost during the developing process, including the tradition itself. Take Before the Flood as example, the filming mostly took place in Fengjie, a county famous for inspiring many Chinese poets. One of the most well known Tang poetries by Li Po (generally acknowledged as the greatest poet in Chinese history) is depicting about the place. Therefore filming the dislocation in Fengjie gives out the attempt of engaging in its historical respect. More than that, Before the Flood and Fengjie eventually inspired another Chinese leading director Jia Zhangke to make one of his most renowned films Still Life, which is a docudrama attaching the theme of the Three Gorges Dam as well.
Visual Representation, Surreal style and Still Life
In the sense of visual representation and narration, Before the Flood embraces the basic documentary technique, tracking and shooting without commenting. Thus it reflects that the relationship between filmmaker and subject seems to be distant. However, from the camera works more or less leak out some information of the emotion and sense perception the filmmakers had. Such as in the beginning the shots tend to be longer and steadier, but through the force evacuation time approaches, the shots become shorter and shakier. This brings the tension to peak, meanwhile, more and more conflicts are emerging. In a comparison of Up the Yangtze, the image and picture is comparatively restless. What makes the dramatic tension in Before the Flood is the atmosphere of endless conflicts.
There are two scenes leave the most impressive aftertaste, like Werner Herzog defines what film is, ‘the agitation of mind.’ Firstly, the aging owner of coolie hostel walked down the hill trying to find a place for his alternative hostel after the old one would be flooded. The camera stays still and the old man is becoming smaller and smaller in the frame, eventually disappearing with in a large number of reinforced concrete bars. His anxiety and insignificantly small figure contrasts to the massive ‘concrete forest’, therefore drawing a picture of the relationship between him and his living environment. In spite of no comment has been made, but the image has already spoken out the fate of this old man in a very symbolic way.
The second scene that shatters emotion is the explosion of buildings. To see several houses, blocks of flats and tall buildings collapsing from different angles in a flash time is a mind blowing process. A city older than two thousand years could be torn down in a few years, even seconds. It creates a kind of visual violence, like news broadcast image or CCTV, direct and shocking. A metaphoric moment later on comes after a series of explosions. As we can see the camera stays still, dirt and dust floating in the air after the building collapsed, the sight thereafter is full of dusty air. It is seemingly bringing up a sense of ‘dust of tradition’, which on certain degree ‘floods’ our vision. Even if Before the Flood and Up the Yangtze are documentaries, however, the demolition city scenes visually seem to create a surreal atmosphere. It draws apart a distance between decaying Fengjie and the city landscape that we generally consider as.
The surreal effect also applies to another Three Gorges Dam backdrop film Still Life. Even though it is not a documentary, but the landscape and characters in the film are mostly realistic and authentic. Some critics categorise it as a docudrama, some call it ‘a breathtakingly poetic hybrid of documentary and fiction.’ Its documentary element demonstrates on human physical bodies, then immediately shows in its open scene: the camera slowly tracking along inside a long boat which is packed with local people as passengers, whose faces and bodies are like what New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis writes ‘human bodies as moving space’. Therefore simply through local people, we seem to be able to watch a portrait of life or a ‘still life’ in Fengjie.
Nevertheless, the fiction elements or surreal expression in Still Life except for those animation, are mainly focusing on the landscapes. The director Jia Zhangke manages to turn a massive rubble fields and soon to be torn down buildings into a poetic tableau. What makes the film visually surreal is that the half-decayed Fengjie in the film is like a Chinese traditional scroll landscape painting, but their contents have nothing in common. This highlights a contrast of visual representation, which is seemingly surreal, but actually real.
The political representation in Up the Yangtze firstly starts as a joke. A Chinese leader and an American leader both sit in a car. When facing a junction, to the left is socialism, to the right is capitalism. American leader says ‘let’s turn right’; Chinese leader says ‘OK, I will turn right, but the indicator will be turned on to the left.’ No matter whether it is China’s current political position or not, we will not laugh if it is not that true in certain degree. However, this joke actually points out a huge transition in China. Although the Three Gorges Dam project has already proposed by nation’s father Sun Yat Sen in 1919, but it did not really carried out until 1950s Mao Ze Dong embraced this idea. The archive footage of Mao swimming across the Yangtze River is put in the film as well, which stresses Mao’s belief of the existence of dam will completely change the world. And then the mega dam eventually began to be under construction from 1993. Interestingly, the start of Dam construction time is also around the time China’s economic reform direction is entirely assured.
The economic reform is like a turning point of China’s development. Before that it is like what the 16 year old girl Yu-Shui’s father describes, his mother starved to death in the Great Famine of the 1960s, around Mao’s time. Thus this could be seen a hint suggesting that communism could hardly make a nation’s economy better. However, the influence of Mao’s thoughts or communism’s propaganda is still everywhere, despite China’s economic transformation. Like the slogan of Chinese government imposed during the Three Gorges Dam project, ‘the small family must sacrifice to help the big family’ entirely presents the spirit of communism. It appears not only in both Before the Flood and Still Life, but also happens to Yu-Shui in Up the Yangtze in a personal way.
When Yu-Shui expresses her willing to take a further study, her parents exactly expect her to sacrifice herself to help the whole family. And as she says: ’’Now we are in a socialist society that demands knowledge.” In regardless of what kind of society China actually is, it is no doubt that Yu-Shui regards herself having taken part in the age of the New China. Even so it doesn’t mean Yu-Shui’s parents still represent the old China, but they seem to have no other choice in terms of coping with their fate of the relocation due to the dam construction. It is cruel but they are simply unable to catch up the pace of the New China. The director’s narrative seems to prove this: “Mao’s utopian vision of the Three Gorges Dam at some point actually has become a harsh reality now.”
Consequently, the Three Gorges Dam project symbolises the power to push China ahead to a new position both economically and politically. A little story about ‘no matter black cat or white cat, as long as being able to catch a rat then it is a good cat’, truthfully, shows Chinese government’s flexible policy toward economic reform. The implication in all three films all suggest that it is more than an economic purpose to build the biggest dam in history. It could be utterly political as well. As Rob Nixon analyses, ‘iconic structures of monumental modernity serve to concretise the idea that developing nations are catching up.’ For that reason, it is not surprising that an old man on street in Up the Yangtze claims that ‘our country becomes so strong, even being able to cut off such a big river.’ The Three Gorges Dam has turned into a national proud that is imposed in general people’s political ideology.
Unfortunately, the nation’s progression doesn’t guarantee individual’s advancement. Everyone could be political correct as long as national development doesn’t conflict with personal interest. As we can see the antique shop owner bursts into tear and grumbles about it’s difficult to be a common person, even more difficult to be a common person in China. What he meant is not only individual sacrifice but also the corruption culture in local government. Ironically, the most vested interest group from the Three Gorges Dam project might be neither common people nor the nation itself, but the local officials. In all three films we can see this bribing issue.
Therefore, whether it is the antique shop owner or Yu-Shui’s family, or the rest two million relocatees, their helpless situations constitute the most emotion affecting power. In particular, the scene that Yu-Shui’s parents are brought on the Three Gorges Dam to speak freely about the effect of the project and the glory it brings to China. Even though their home is going to be disappeared due to the Dam, they still accept it and regard its necessary benefit to the country. Sadly, their sacrifices might be only paid off as sympathy from audience instead of as much substantial aid from authority.
In addition, some political issues in Up the Yangtze are represented in a subtle and humorous way. For instance, the manager gives employees guidance of not to talk about some political taboos with tourists. ‘Never compare Canada and the United States; never call anyone old, pale or fat (plump is O.K.); never talk about politics.’ Some other political representation is about identity. As two main characters step on the cruise boat, immediately they are given English names. This concretises an idea that China’s modernisation is perhaps more likely to be part of pursuing and fusing with western type of modern society. When a person’s name is replaced to another, the shift of identity becomes the problem of self-effacement. This kind of trend might belong to post-Mao China, or it is simply the value of the new China. Thus it has become a political ambivalent or paradox. Like the car indicator joke, China is seemingly rejecting western world but actually embracing it.
The controversies and contrasts the Three Gorges Dam brings are like the Yangtze River’s surface, rising every year. It is an endless journey to discuss its benefits and harms. And it is particularly hard to find an appropriate answer or meaning to the existence of this massive dam. Although we still could not find the answer through documentaries, but at least we are able to find different angles to see the questions.
What Up the Yangtze, Before the Flood, and Still Life truly tend to explore is not the Three Gorges Dam itself, instead, is the change and transition of China. That is also part of the reason those tourists on luxury cruise boat come for. However, the construction of the dam becomes a paradoxical argument, even providing conflict as element to cinematic expression. Aesthetically, the artistic conception of rising water to flood the city might be poetic. But when it turns out to be reality, the perception of the picture will end up harsh.
In visual style, Still Life might be the most outstanding among the three, due to it is not a documentary most of scenes could be designed. But it truthfully depicts the empty mind and landscape in Fengjie in a poetic and surreal way. The landscape and local people in it all become a tableau. Like the usual form of expression in traditional Chinese scroll landscape painting, ‘leaving an empty space’ to imagination. That is to say, emptiness also needs to be created. The visual expression in Up the Yangtze has the similar effect. Its stately and slow camera work creates a peaceful atmosphere, and its metaphorical expression also enriches the film with layers of narration. Although director’s narratives run through the whole film, but it is not preachy, instead, his personal nostalgic connection adds some more warmth into the film. Personally, the observational style of Before the Flood gives me the most space to contemplate. Its cinematic tension is also the greatest, in terms of the reality of demolition conflict. The visual expression is relatively plain, but direct and powerful.
As to the political representation, the Three Gorges Dam symbolises the glory of China’s economic development. At the same time it also sacrifices millions of people’s interest. Neither Before the Flood nor Up the Yangtze criticise this, but simply let the images and local people speak for it. As the white cat black cat anecdote in Up the Yangtze, the political standpoint might not be that crucial in these three films. And what is believed as more important than giving out position toward politics is paying close attention to the bigger picture, which is China’s change. Although the mysterious, exotic, ancient China has disappeared and been like Fengjie, or Yu Shui’s home, forever being flooded by rising Yangtze River. But through watching these documentaries, as if we were on the luxury cruise boat as well, experiencing the journey of witnessing China’s heading to a new direction. Yet we need to farewell to it, after all, its change is still on-going. As that old saying suggests, ‘The only thing that never changes is change itself.’