Jia Zhang-ke's STILL LIFE (2006) may be the best film to date about the humanitarian and environmental impact of China's enormous Three Gorges Dam project, the largest hydro-electric facility in the world and the culmination of Chairman Mao's grand dream of conquering the Yangtze River. But this potent documentary about two very different Chinese teenagers who wind up working on the same Yangtze River tour boat isn't far behind.
By the time the dam is completed and the Yangtze rises to its final water level, it's estimated that some two million people will have been displaced from their homes, hopefully with the relocation funds their government promised in the bank. Mr. Yu and his family are among the most desperate of these relocatees. The son of a minor pre-Revolutionary government official, Yu persecuted as a counterrevolutionary during Mao's regime; his mother was among the millions who starved to death during the Great Famine. Yu is understandably wary of the government, and knows from bitter experience that what's good for the State often proves fatal for the individual. Mr. Yu, his wife and their three children once lived in Fengdu -- the legendary "Ghost City" on the banks of the Yangtze believed to be location of the Gates of Hell -- but was forced to move to the opposite bank when Fengdu was emptied in preparation for its total submersion. The Yus now live in a ramshackle hovel and eke out a meager living as subsistence farmers. Their eldest daughter, 16-year-old Yu Shui, once dreamed of going to university, but now her family can't afford to pay for her to complete high school. She'll instead have to work on one of the luxury Victoria Cruise boats that ferry foreign tourists and moneyed Chinese up and down the Yangtze on "Farewell Tours" of the fast disappearing landscape. Nineteen-year-old Chen Bo Yu, the only child of comfortably middle-class family, was recruited in his high-school by the Queens, NY-based Victoria Cruises. Tall, good-looking and partially fluent in English, the spoiled, arrogant Bo Yu – who took the name Jerry to better accommodate Westerners -- quickly learns how to milk rich foreigners for tips. Shui, who will go by "Cindy," is shy and has trouble with simple English; her dark complexion earns her the nickname "Little Grey Rabbit" among her crewmates. As Bo Yu prospers, Shui worries what will become of her family when the river rises yet again and submerges their small hut.
Chinese-Canadian filmmaker Yung Chang interrupts the haunted mood he creates with unnecessary voice-over narration that becomes increasingly distracting as we become more involved with Yu Shui and Chen Bo Yu's stories. Besides, no words could be more eloquent or descriptive than Chang and cinematographer Wang Shi Qing's amazing footage, including the slow, time-lapse submersion of the Yu home and an interview with a relocated shopkeeper who tries but ultimately fails to put a brave face on what is clearly turning out to look more like a national tragedy than a miracle. The film doesn't address toll the dam project has already taken on the environment, or on the Chinese culture and history that now lies under water. But does a marvelous job of communicating just how devastating such "progress" is proving to be for those least able to absorb such "miraculous" change. leave a comment --Ken Fox