It's not often one finds an insightful documentary about China that isn't overtly political (Wild China comes to mind), but director Yung Chang achieves just that Up the Yangtze.
Chang opens his film reminiscing about his grandfather's stories of life in Sichuan province. He wants to see the China that his grandfather lived in. He embarks on a luxury cruise up the Yangtze before the Three Gorges Dam is complete--he encounters plenty of Western tourists on the cruise who "are here to see an ancient version of China that doesn't exist anymore."
Chang shifts his focus from the travels of the tourists to two employees on the ship--one is a 19-year-old boy from the city, the other is a 16-year-old girl who lives in a shack on the river. The aspirations of each is different--the boy, Chen, wants a high-paying job rather than going to college, while the girl, Cindy, is forced to work because her parents can't afford to send her to high school.
There are also scenes mixed in about the cities and towns along the Yangtze being affected by the flooding. He speaks with a shopkeeper who is trying to sell everything before he is forced to move--he breaks down talking about how he's not being compensated or treated fairly. Outside the store, residents complain about harassment by thugs and not receiving the proper amount of compensation. As the shopkeeper says, "China is too hard for common people."
However, Cindy's family is optimistic about the future because they have food and a roof over their heads. Cindy begins her career on the cruise with slouched shoulders and a constant frown. But, as she is helped along by co-workers, she opens up and begins to smile and enjoy her work.
Up the Yangtze shows the complexity and contradictions of China. It doesn't mention anything about the environmental impact of the Three Gorges Dam, but rather focuses on the human cost--in some cases improving lives while ruining others. It also portrays views of tourism--from the poor English phrases the ship's crew is taught, to the propaganda tours, to manufactured traditional shows.