On the prowl in this locale since 22 June 2008:

Website counter

26 May 2008

INTERVIEW: "Up the Yangtze" Is A Slow Boat to China

What happens when a government decides a great river must be harnessed to provide electricity for a fast-growing nation? The short answer is: People must move and life must change. The long answer would fill volumes, telling the story of the millions affected by this government project--how the rich and the poor fair differently.

Yung Chang's Up the Yangtze attempts to encapsulate these stories by following two employees on a pleasure cruise. The so-called farewell cruise itself is part sentimental journey, part modern anthropological study and part culture clash. There are privileged foreigners coming to see a curiousity, observe people they don't understand while disappointed that the old China no longer exists. These foreign tourists have come to say farewell to a life they never knew and are served by locals whose families must say good-bye to a life they've known for centuries. Yet for many, their opportunity to be in the tourist industry is based on their pending displacement.

In 2002, Chang joined his parents and his grandfather on one of the farewell cruises. A Canadian of Chinese descent, Chang speaks Chinese and also remembers hearing his grandfather telling about old China. He was struck by the irony of the situation and as a resulted decided to make his own farewell project.

"I think my grandfather and his sentiments are representative of many who have since left the Mainland. Like I say in my film: My grandfather no longer recognizes the China he once knew."

This wasn't Chang's first trip to China. Via email, he explained, "First time I traveled to the mainland was in 1997 to visit my grandfather in Beijing. He brought me to his old home which was in a hutong. In 2002, I went back to Beijing and also to take the cruise. Much had changed. The hutong was gone and in its place a giant skyscraper. I've also traveled extensively throughout China and lived in Hong Kong."

For those who are geographically-challenged, the Yangtze River is the third longest river in the world and the longest river in Asia. It has, at times, served as the dividing line between North and South China. The river has two dams, including the Three Gorges Dam, and many more are planned.

Yet the Yangtze is more than just a river according to Chang.

"To travel to the Three Gorges region is a very important trip for many Chinese people. It's almost like a pilgrimage. The Yangtze river or Chang Jiang (Long River) as it's known in Chinese is steeped in mythology and history. It's considered the lifeline of China. So you can imagine that for my grandfather it was an emotional trip."

The Three Gorges Dam project began in 1994 and isn't expected to be finished until 2011. The projected benefits will be the control of periodic flooding and a reduction of air pollution via the production of electricity from the water current thereby replacing the burning of coal. The rising waters will consume houses, villages and towns. For this project, over two million people will be displaced.

Not only were people displaced. Native animals were as well. The 2006 declaration of the baiji, the Yangze River freshwater dolphin, as functionally extinct was one of the environmental effects of this project and more animals are threatened. Yet the project moves on without environmental impact reports hindering the projected completion dates. This is China moving toward a greener future. Chang isn't concerned with this paradox, but the surreal human dramas on the farewell cruises.

The film really leaves it up to you decide the 'message'. It's not my job as a director to be heavy-handed. I want the audience to be provoked, to ask more questions. So there's been different opinions from all different perspectives, much like the different perspectives explored in the film. Westerners, Chinese Nationals, and the Chinese diaspora all have different sentiments. And just like a traveller who visits another culture in another country, one is always taking from a personal experience, a personal perspective, and I think that's important to note.

Going back in 2004 and 2005 and finally between May and December of 2006, Chang built up a story of opportunity and loss. This is part upstairs-downstairs story contrasting between the native servants who see they way of life vanishing and the foreign customers who are a bit disappointed that the old China has already disappeared. From the boat, both watch the last views of what has been the landscape of the Yangtze.

Of the many people he met, Chang chose two: Yu Shui who is re-christened as Cindy and Chen Bo Yu or Jerry. Both are given names that are easier for the foreigners to remember.

Chen Bo Yu is the spoiled only child of a middle-class family. As one of many "little emperors" created under the one-child-only policy, he has a hard time adjusting to being a servant among privileged Western clientele.

Yu Shui is the eldest of three children of an impoverished peasant family who live in a shack near the edge of the river. With no rent to pay and growing their own vegetables, they barely get by. In order to have a son, the family paid fines for having more than one child. Yu Shui wants to go to college, but where will the money come from? To pay the bills from her only brother's illness, Yu Shui must work on the boat as a dishwasher.

"Because Yu Shui is the eldest daughter she is responsible for taking care of her family," Chang explained. "Yu Shui cares deeply for her brother's well-being. I think it goes beyond the only son situation. Although I believe the family has a lot of expectations of the younger brother, Yu Deng Feng. "

Up the Yangtze is Chang's second documentary. His first documentary, Earth to Mouth, was about migrant farm labor and Canada's Chinese community.

Earth to Mouth was to me a romantic, poetic, meditative film. I wanted to depict the immigrant experience and to have found this Chinese-operated farm in Eastern Ontario was very unique. The film is entirely in Chinese and Spanish. I wanted to capture the beauty of living on a farm, and to me, in a way, this very naive, romantic perspective. And having found the character of the Chinese immigrant grandmother was fascinating, the fact that she ran this farm and worked with Mexican migrant workers.

There is something also, I think, melancholic about it. The fact that she was a recent immigrant from China, isolated on this farm. When I showed the film at a festival in Toronto, there’s been people who’ve seen the film who are immigrants of other countries, and when they see the movie it resonates very deeply with them because they can relate to this kind of displacement, uprootedness, loneliness that one feels when adjusting to a new culture. I think perhaps there was something that just seeped through the film when I was shooting the movie.

Canada and America are different countries with different though linked histories. When asked how he'd compare Canada's Chinese community to the US Chinese community, Chang said:

I think there's one essential difference between immigrants from Canada and from the US. In Canada there's this idea of a multi-cultural society. In the US, it's a melting-pot. In Canada, it's much more important to maintain your cultural identity and language. I think the US has a policy based on assimilation. It's a mass generalization, but I would say that the Chinese-Canadian community is much smaller than in the US and is not as connected. In the US, there's a community of filmmaking by Asian-Americans, that in my opinion, is very unified. But then again, there are great festivals in Canada, including Toronto's ReelAsian Film Festival, that bring together filmmakers from the Asian diaspora throughout Canada. But we have a deep history of Chinese-Canadians who helped to build the national railway, who have lived in Canada for many generations. There's a very good documentary by Karen Cho called In the Shadow of Gold Mountain which is about the last living survivors of the Chinese Head Tax and Exclusion Act. From 1885 until 1947, this racist act plunged the Chinese community in Canada into decades of debt and family separation.

Chang wants to continue looking at China in future documentaries.

I'm working on various projects. I'm working on a production about the opium trade from production to consumption. I'm helping to produce a film by my collaborator on Up The Yangtze. Fan Lixin's film about the Spring Festival in China when hundreds of millions of migrant workers try to leave the city for five days back to their homes in the countryside - it's absolute chaos. He's followed a migrant family for two years and it's a very dramatic documentary. I am helping him to finish this film. I also expect to make more documentaries
and fiction films in China.

If you can't see his first documentary and his second documentary isn't showing locally, Up the Yangtze will eventually be available on DVD and will include a more complete perspective of the people around the Yangtze.

Chang explained, "I shot over 200 hours of footage during the four years it took to make the film. Unfortunately, I could not make the 10 hour version. Additional storylines that are not in the film will be available on our DVD release. "

If you do see the Up the Yangtze and want to help the Yu family, Chang mentioned that you can do that with the click of a mouse.

EyeSteelFilm helped to pay for her tuition. I've since begun a fund through a great site called GiveMeaning to help the Yu family for the next 5 years to cover medical/health, food and supplies as well as to pay for the children's school education. Most importantly, I found out that Mr. Yu desperately requires an eye operation or he will not be able to find employment. We've managed to raise a bit of money through the site. Audiences can leave a movie feeling moved to action and this fund is a great way for people to channel the hardship chronicled in the film into something positive.

Yung Chang's documentary, Up the Yangtze is a slow boat to China, a China that doesn't exist, a China that will stop existing and a China that will exist in the future.

Chang replied to my questions before the 12 May earthquake. The 7.8-magnitude earthquake was centered 60 miles northwest of Chengdu and cause deaths in the city of Chongqing, one of the main cities on the Yangtze river.

18 May 2008

MOVIE REVIEW: Of Mice and Men

Since I first read this 1937 John Steinbeck piece in high school, much has happened. At the time, I had already witnessed the slow death of a loved one to a terminal illness. I didn't go to see the 1992 movie directed by Gary Sinise with a screenplay written by Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist (The Young Man From Atlanta, 1995) and Oscar-winning screenwriter (To Kill a Mockingbird, 1962; Tender Mercies, 1983), Horton Foote, when it came out. What could this faithful production have to offer?

Since high school, I have seen many versions of Of Mice and Men. The reasons for Lennie and George's low economic status have differed from down-and-out white men during the Depression as per the original, to Lennie as a deaf person to both Lennie and George being braceros--men imported from Mexico to work on the farms when the able-bodied men were either forcibly removed into internment camps or gone to fight World War II in Europe or the Pacific. That each of these interpretation works sends a sadly universal message.

The first mention of death in the play refers to a dog and as a dog lover I thought I could understand the pain Candy felt. Previously, my pets (hamsters) had been short-lived as is their nature, my rabbits had died at home during the night and my dogs had been old with cancerous growths that defied the skills of most vets. I had not, until recently, been haunted by the decision of when to put a beloved dog down or wondered where would I be when I became old and unable to work.

In this way, with each year and each decade, this piece's meaning deepens and the pain becomes all too real and applicable to every day life.

For those unfamiliar with the story, it follows two drifters--poor, lonely men. They have been given a work assignment in Northern California. Lennie (John Malkovich) is a tall man of unusual strength, but with the mental capacity of a 3 year old. He has picked up a mouse, one already dead. He keeps it because he likes stroking soft things. We soon learn that he has killed other animals by petting them to death, crushing them without truly understanding the fragility of living things. George (Gary Sinise) makes him throw the mouse away. They sleep one night, under the stars. George makes Lenny promise to meet there again if something should go wrong. The next day, at the farm, they do find trouble. The foreman (Noble Willingham) has a son who dislikes Lennie instantly, perhaps, only because he is big and the son, Curley (Casey Siemaszko), is short. Curley is also picking fights with other men because his wife (Sherilyn Fenn) is lonely and often seeks out the company of the men when Curley isn't around. Steinbeck shows us the only future such men face. Candy (Ray Walston) is old and crippled. His only friend is his dog. Another worker, Carlson (Richard Riehle) badgers Candy about the dog. It is old, useless and smelly. In the end, Candy lets Carlson kill his beloved dog.

The pain is almost unbearable for Candy. Yet Lennie has a plan, one that will save Lennie and George from the lonely fate of Candy or the bitterness of some of the other men who have no future dreams. Lennie and George will save money for some land where they can work for themselves and George can tend the rabbits they will raise for food and money. After Lennie unintentionally revels the plan to Candy, George allows Candy to join their little plan and the future seems assured, until Curly and his wife ruin their plans.

The title was taken from a 1785 poem by Robert Burns. It expresses regret at turning up the winter nest of a mouse on a farm.

Thou saw the fields laid bare an' wast,
An' weary Winter comin fast,
An' cozie here, beneath the blast,
Thou thought to dwell,
Till crash! the cruel coulter past
Out thro' thy cell.

That wee-bit heap o' leaves an' stibble,
Has cost thee monie a weary nibble!
Now thou's turn'd out, for a' thy trouble,
But house or hald.
To thole the Winter's sleety dribble,
An' cranreuch cauld!

But Mousie, thou are no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men,
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!

Still, thou art blest, compar'd wi' me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But Och! I backward cast my e'e,
On prospects drear!
An' forward, tho' I canna see,
I guess an' fear

When I think of Lennie, I find regret for not having been braver and stronger and protecting the mentally disabled classmates I knew. I think of the afternoons I'd spent with one dog at a school for the developmentally disabled young teens who like Lennie had not more sense than a 3-year-old child around animals. I think of a lot of pain and grief I've given and felt.

Directer Sinise, allows these characters to be ordinary, very believable and flawed men. One can see that without Lennie, Sinise's George is doomed to bitterness. Without George, Malkovich's Lennie would have been beaten and murdered long ago. He has a child's flash of anger that isn't easily calmed down.

One feels that Sinise truly appreciates Steinbeck's words and the power of those words. He shows us the beauty of Northern Californian farmlands lit in golden light and in contrast, he also shows the ugliness of the oppressive and alienating worker system--every man for himself and, in the end, every man alone.

Sinise's Of Mice and Men is a movie worth renting, before or after you read the book and even, to remind oneself of where we as a country once were and thank God that we've become a kinder, gentler nation since.

07 May 2008

MOVIE REVIEW: Don Juan in French

If you aren't familiar with Moliere's play on Don Juan, and are more familiar with Don Juan de Marco, you might think the French would have more fun.

Yet that isn't Moliere's play "Dom Juan ou le festin de pierre." Jacques Weber, a French actor, has adapted Moliere's play and stars as the title character in the grim 1998 "Don Juan."

For those unfamiliar with the play, the play begins after Don Juan has seduced Elvire, a young woman in a nunnery. He has already lost interest and now pursues a couple who are happily in love, a love that Don Juan means to destroy by seducing the woman. Unfortunately for Don Juan, good fortune smiles on the couple and Don Juan's plans fail, leaving his boat to sink. He is saved by a poor peasant. The peasant has a lovely girlfriend who Don Juan proceeds to seduce and yet, one girl is not enough, and he flirts with another. In one scene, he cleverly plays each woman off the other, swearing undying love for both. He and his servant, Sganarelle, leave the women and attempt to return to their home. On the way, Don Juan is pursued by Elvire's brothers, determined to avenge her loss of honor and Don Juan chances upon the statue of a man he killed. He jests and invites the statue to dinner and the statue accepts.

Weber is gray-haired, with a large and imposing frame. He is husky in a way that suggests the aging of a once impressive physique into softness. His Don Juan is a humorless man blustering and trading mostly on his position for conquests in bed. He doesn't charm women as much as feed them their dreams, nourish their fantasy of conquering and reforming a bad boy. Or he plays on their greed and vanity--a peasant woman's dream of becoming a princess--or at least, a lady of aristocratic standing.

Michel Boujenah as Sganarelle is his dour servant and angry conscience. His position is thankless and his fate, to have his master die without paying him his wages, means poverty and destitution. Instead of a whine and a shrug, we have Sganarelle left destitute as a sidewalk beggar in a time before tell-all book deals on celebrities's scandalous lives. How times have changed.

Lacking the tease of a playboy or the humor of a bon vivant, this version of Moliere's play is a dark, merciless look at a harsh man who uses his money and position to lure women into bed, but almost immediately loses interest. His father disowns him. And he dies, very much alone. This is a fire-and-brimstone morality play with no sugar to make this medicine go down more easily.

As director Weber, scrapes away the charm of Moliere's play and despite the solemnity of this film, he doesn't move this into the range of horror. The statue is just a statue not a supernatural being come to fetch a man whose sins are too many and too great to leave to the normal devices.

Emmanuelle BĂ©art is a fetching Elvire and Penelope Cruz and Ariadna Gil are the two beautiful peasant women who fight over him. All three have little on-screen chemistry with Weber and on a certain level, that works.

I recently saw a stage version of the very same play at Glendale's A Noise Within and that production sparkled with wit. Don Juan was dashing and quite a bit younger than Weber. Sganarelle was a comical worm of a man, trying to express his conscience yet crumpling into a groveling coward when his master's expression turned to a frown or raised his voice in anger. The story is essentially the same as this French movie, but the comedy is much more entertaining.

Mary Poppins was right: A spoonful of sugar in the way of laughter, make the medicine go down in the most delightful way. This movie isn't the most inspired version of Moliere's play and unless you like your lessons in life served with a dose of cod liver oil, pass on this one.