It hardly seems fair to compare Yung Chang’s excellent debut documentary, Up the Yangtze, with work by a master filmmaker like Jia Zhangke, i.e., Still Life (2006), but the comparison is inevitable: Chang’s movie is set further downstream, in Fengdu province. His documentary focuses on the tourist trade, as it follows a girl who works in the kitchen of a cruise boat on the Yangtze ferrying Western tourists — the apparently willing believers of official government discourse. Yu Shui, renamed Cindy for easier pronunciation, also happens to come from a dirt-poor family of peasant farmers whose riverbank shack is about to be inundated.
Chang has such a remarkable sense of drama and rhythm, for the elegant ebb and flow of the parade of ordinary images before the camera — so much so that it feels less and less a documentary than a narrative feature. It may not have the desolate poetry of Jia’s images, but Up the Yangtze proves there is nothing more gripping or painful than the reality of desolation itself.