Chinese Movie Tripping: Up the Yangtze & Last Train Home

Whenever I’m in Shanghai, I stock up on the latest Chinese movies. I just watched two powerful documentaries I’d like to recommend.

“Up the Yangtze” was shot in 2007 and tells the story of people whose lives are affected by the building of the Three Gorges Dam in Hubei province. The story follows a young girl whose home is literally being swallowed by the rising waters. She goes to work on a tourist cruise ship and has to learn the ropes of the tourist industry. Old and new worlds collide – the girl’s parents are poor farmers and the tourists on the boat are rich Americans. To work in the tourist industry means learning English, and learning how to service Western culture. It is a bittersweet portrait of modern China.

“Last Train Home” tells the personal story of migrant factory workers in Southern China. This beautifully shot film documents what is the largest migration of humans in the history of the world – 200 million workers make their way home for a month during the annual Chinese New Year holiday. The Zhangs have been working in factories for 16 years, sending money home to the grandmother who is raising their two children. They have been saving money to send their children to school and hopefully a more prosperous life. These plans are frustrated by a bitter 16 year old daughter (who is resentful of her absent parents) and whose plans to join the factory workforce, throws the family into turmoil. It is a poignant study in how the rush for money and success in new China is destroying traditional family values.

Both films are excellent studies of the difficulties facing modern Chinese citizens. The emphasis on success is very high, but it often comes at a price – the destruction of a nuclear family life. I highly recommend both films for their insights on the rapidly changing Chinese cultural and emotional landscape.