Yung Chang, Up The Yangtze
At a time when the popularity of documentaries is at an all-time high, Canadian director Yung Chang is not only telling stories as compelling as his peers’, but doing so with a truly cinematic sensibility that is often lacking in his field. Born in Whitby, Ontario, to first generation Chinese immigrant parents, Chang studied film production at Concordia University, graduating in 1999. He was also a student at New York’s Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre, where he learned the Meisner Technique. He directed the short film The Fish Market in 2002 and the following year made his documentary debut with Earth to Mouth, a National Film Board of Canada commission that chronicled the existence of a Chinese immigrant farmer in Canada. The film won prizes at a number of film festivals including Rencontres Internationales du documentaire in Montreal, the city where Chang is currently based.
Like Earth to Mouth, Chang’s latest film, Up the Yangtze, sees the director drawing on his cultural heritage as a source of inspiration. The documentary takes as its subject the Yangzter river’s Three Gorges Dam Project, a symbol of Chinese progress – and the flooding and eradication of whole towns that is a result of this “step forward.” The film focuses on the lives of two young employees working on a Yangtze “farewell cruise” (to see towns before they are submerged), shy Yu Shui (“Cindy”), a studious but impoverished girl whose family home will soon be lost to the rising waters, and Chen Bo Yo (“Jerry”), an arrogant middle class teen intent on making his fortune. Chang ably balances the different elements in the film, making it both epic in its depiction of the changing countryside and intimate in the tender way it depicts its inhabitants. He offsets the tragic story of the Yu family with Jerry’s almost comic subplot and never takes us too far beyond these personal perspectives, resisting the temptation to make some forced grand argument out of their lives.
Filmmaker spoke to Chang about his experiences filming in China, the future of documentaries and the meaning of “Chinese time.”
Filmmaker: I believe you got the idea for the film on one of the “farewell cruises” on the Yangtze in 2002.
Chang: That was the first time I went to the Yangtze River, and that particular trip was with my parents and my grandfather. It was a very different context to be traveling with your family but also to be slightly aware of what you’re about to embark on. I had a video camera with me and I filmed a little bit of that trip. That initial process of taking that boat was, for me, sort of cautious and what I was really inspired by at that moment was to tell a story much more about the culture of tourism and the tourism of culture, but it became much more over the many years that I was developing it.
Filmmaker: How did you first make contact with your subjects in the documentary, because at the start of the film they have not yet started working on the cruise boat?
Chang: The timeline worked very well. I found them in March 2006 through the recruitment process, when the ships go to look for new employees they go to all the local rover towns. They canvas at the high schools and kids will sign up for interviews. So Yu Shui signed up, Jerry signed up. I was with the managers during the signing up, so it was sort of a natural casting process where I could filter through who I wanted to have as my main subjects. Through that process I found Yu Shui, and then went back and found the family. The kids weren’t scheduled to go onto the ship until summer, and I followed that natural timeline so I had the timespan between the winter and the summer to work with the family at their home base.
Filmmaker: How much time did you spend building trust and getting to know the family?
Chang: A long time, I would say a few months. Right from the get-go in March I went to the family home, spent time there and didn’t bring a camera. I explained what I was trying to do and I think the family looked at me as a mentor for Yu Shui, because she would be leaving home for the first time. They looked at me as someone that would be there with her during that process, so that was a special relationship. Something that I learned along the way was that in order to not exploit your subjects you have to make them aware that you’re in it for the long term. In order to make that relationship work intimately, and for the camera to have that emotional intimacy, you have to maintain that connection. Even to this day I’m still in touch with the family, and Yu Shui calls me her big brother, so that was important.
Filmmaker: It seems like you had a planned narrative arc for the film going into production.
Chang: Right. I’m pretty consciously driven by telling a narrative story and I think that the timeline for the film had this built-in structure where I knew that at some point the home was going to be flooded by the river, so everything seemed to reach to that moment. Then I had that special arc of seeing the transformation of Yu Shui on the boat and the sudden, unexpected things that happened along the way. And then what happened with Jerry, and how that complemented within the general story structure. Having lived in Chongqing and shot the film for a year in that location, I think you really get a sense of the rhythms and patterns of how things develop.
Filmmaker: How much did people try and affect you in the way you portrayed the impact of the dam?
Chang: It happened a lot, even within my Chinese documentary film crew. I’m considered an “overseas Chinese,” but I’m an outsider. That position is unique: being Chinese, being Western-raised but having that sensibility of speaking Mandarin. It put me in a weird position to be able to have this debate with my crew, and it even filtered through to the very frontline level where my crew were wondering why I wanted to show negative aspects of China, which I firmly disagreed that I was doing. I think by the end of the filming, my crew were on my side, they could really see that the story of a peasant family spoke volumes to the kind of social conditions of this new progress in China. If you just peel back that first layer, there are many people that are discontent and it was not uncommon for me to be driving from location A to location B and run into a protest on the highway, protests against corruption or land development, so that was eye-opening. We would arrive in towns and villages and pull out our camera and people would think we were from the local TV station, so they would come up and tell us about some kind of local corrupt official or some restaurant selling bad food. It was interesting to be in that position.
Filmmaker: In regard to the Chinese authorities, how careful did you feel you had to be in terms of what you said and filmed?
Chang: The greatest irony of how it works with the Chinese is that even though there are plenty of documentaries made by Chinese filmmakers that criticize their own social issues – I’m thinking of To Live Is Better Than To Die or some movie by Wang Bing – these films are loaded with commentary, but the minute that an outsider steps in to make that same sort of point of view, they’re going to be lambasted for that. But I think I was careful and I definitely tried to play up the fact that I’m Chinese, I’m an overseas Chinese, that I do have that connection to seeing both perspectives, the Western and the Chinese.
Filmmaker: Has the film played in China?
Chang: We’ve shown the film to a salon environment of filmmakers and producers and it went very positively. We’re even looking at the potential of having the film slightly recut for a broader audience in China, perhaps broadcast it. We’re working with a Chinese producer to do this.
Filmmaker: What kind of cuts would you have to make?
Chang: I think any sort of comment about the central government would have to be taken out. I think I may have to lose the antique dealer [scene]. I think that’s the most politically charged sequence in the movie and unfortunately that would have to go. I think what’s awkward is that it’s so emotional.
Filmmaker: So many documentaries prioritize capturing certain footage and proving certain points ahead of being cinematic in their presentation, but this is not the case with your film. Was having that cinematic quality important to you?
Chang: That was really, really important. I had created a banner in our production office that said “Cinema Not Documentary.” It was really important that we maintained this idea of capturing something that was emotional on a human level, that was not going to be didactic and try to explain something or give some sort of background information. The dam structure for me only exists as a sort of abstract monument in the film and I didn’t want to fill it with statistics. That just wasn’t the point of the film so I made sure that we focused on the human aspect.
Filmmaker: How did Jerry and Yu Shui and her family respond to seeing the film?
Chang: When I finished the film, the first thing I did was go back to China and show the movie to all the participants. Yu Shui was very emotional when she saw herself depicted in this documentary. You can imagine. She said that through her film she was able to see her fate and her destiny, which is quite a heavy thing to say. As a result, she decided to leave the cruise boat and go back to high school, so our production company stepped in to pay for three years of her high school tuition and now we’ve started a fund for her family. We’ve raised quite a bit of money now and we’re continuing this fund and branching the fund out to help other migrant families of the Three Gorges project. Hopefully we’re going to lift the family out of their poverty, buy a plot of land, start a business.
Filmmaker: What about Jerry?
Chang: I’m not worrying about Jerry. Jerry saw the film and in very typical Jerry fashion he wished that the story could have been more focused on him. [laughs] He said that he wanted a greater storyline. All the tragedy that occurred and his arrogance in the film went completely over his head. [laughs] He subsequently asked us about applying to the Dramatic Arts Institute in Beijing and perhaps pursuing a career in acting, which would be very interesting. [laughs]
Filmmaker: Will the current interest in documentaries last, or is it just a fad?
Chang: Well, I think what’s interesting is that it’ll last and I think it’s because the definition itself is being explored right now. You’ve got films all over the place like Behave, a Brazilian film. It’s about the judicial system in Brazil and [the director] wasn’t allowed to film the prisoners or the children that were under trial, so she filmed the judge and the conversations between the court and then she reversed the camera and filmed kids portraying being on trial. There’s a very natural feeling in the documentary. In fact, it questions documentary, and I like that. I like films that are pushing those boundaries. Even Jia Zhang-Ke’s Useless is very good, one of these narrative or non-linear documentaries that border between fiction and documentary. I think that’s where things are going. And Herzog does it too, so I like that.
Filmmaker: When was the last time you cried in a film, and which film was it?
Chang: Last night I saw a movie by a Malaysian director called Flower in the Pocket. It won the top film at Pusan. I just met the filmmaker, he’s a little elfin guy, 27 years of age and he made this movie with a mini DV camera. It’s completely raw, the sound is horrible but the story of these two kids (it’s about young brothers) is absolutely heart-wrenching. There was a moment that reminded me of my relationship with my brother and that brought tears. I cry a lot in movies. [laughs] In fact, I feel like if you don’t then something’s not right.
Filmmaker: Do you always try and get into the theater early enough to watch the previews?
Chang: Well, I’m a bit of a stick, if I miss five minutes of a film I’m very upset so I try to get there early. But because I’m from Montreal and work on Chinese time as well, I’m always a little bit late. [laughs] I always arrive somewhere between the previews and the beginning of the opening credits but I missed the first 10 minutes of There Will Be Blood. I heard I missed the film, basically, so I need to get back into the theater to see it again.
Filmmaker: Can you explain what being on Chinese time means?
Chang: It’s kind of arbitrary. Living in the South of China, you don’t pre-arrange things: when you call somebody on the phone there are no answering machines or voicemails, you have to talk directly to the person. I think Chinese time is something that is very… inexact.
Filmmaker: In The Visitor, one of the characters talks about being on Arab time, which I believe involves being about an hour late for everything.
Chang: Well, Chinese time is not late time, it’s just “you don’t know if it’s going to happen” time. [laughs]