"Yangtze" could be described as the mirror reverse of many popular dramatic stories in which a hero is searching the world to rediscover or rebuild a home. Set in China as the massive Three Gorges Dam was completed, this haunting documentary is the story of a teen-age girl, Yu Shui, who has a warm and loving home -- but winds up homeless in the rapidly shifting landscape of modern China.
The documentary comes to DVD, via Zeitgeist Films, with an impressive pedigree. The PBS network aired it nationally. Various regional film festivals bestowed honors. Critics love the film.
It's an amazing piece of documentary filmmaking, because we see footage shot by candlelight in Yu Shui's tiny ramshackle farmhouse along the Yangtze River. Her parents know that the level of the Yangtze is about to rise dramatically, when the enormous dam is completed. They know that their tiny farm will be washed away. Meanwhile, Yu Shui is contemplating her own dreams of training for a profession.
Over a meager family dinner of noodles one evening, she dares to tell her parents that she hopes to continue her education because she knows that China needs "talented, educated" young people. She's hoping to become a professional and wants to help shape the world's future, she explains.
But her parents are illiterate. Their family situation is dire. They tell her that her plans must be put on hold.
Instead, Yu Shui is signed onto one of the luxury cruise ships that now carry tourists down the ever-widening Yangtze River. She is renamed Cindy, given a uniform and a small bunk on a lower deck of the big ship and sent into the kitchen to wash dishes. Eventually, she is taught how to interact with American guests and is allowed to help serve food in the dining room.
She longs to return home and, on a couple of occasions, she manages to return to the tiny family farm for emotional reunions. But the Three Gorges Dam, an enormous power plant, is nearing completion. We see signs popping up throughout the film of the looming floods that will vastly increase the depth and width of the river.
The documentary would be unbearable to watch if Cindy's new managers on the cruise ship were evil task masters. They aren't. In fact, they're compassionate adults, trying to make their own future in China's rapidly changing culture.
I won't spoil the end of the film by describing exactly what transpires -- but you won't forget the final scenes.