Friday, July 11, 2008

China: sailing up a river of contradictions

This week, the Discovery Channel is airing Ted Koppel's "The People's Republic of Capitalism," a four-part look at contemporary China with an emphasis on the contradictions that have resulted from China's heady immersion in capitalism. For another -- and far more lyrical view -- of such contradictions, try Yung Chang's "Up the Yangtze," a documentary about the strange consequences of building the Three Gorges dam. Mao Zedong was keen on the idea of building the dam, which required massive flooding, which -- in turn -- meant relocating the populations of entire cities. Without being preachy, Yung exposes problems and peculiarities that have resulted from the Three Gorges project. He focuses, for example, on a family of subsistence farmers whose 16-year-old daughter, Yu Shui, goes to work on one of the tour boats that carry foreigners up the Yangtze, trips that partly focus on the glories of China's achievements. You won't see many Chinese on such tours. Maybe that's why workers on these ships are given English names -- Yu Shui becomes Cindy -- and are expected to serve the tourists with smiles and an unsullied optimism that doesn't always match the reality of their lives. Beautifully shot by cinematographer Wang Shi Qing, "Up the Yangzte" captures the hopes of those who aspire to prosperity in the new China and those who are being left behind.

Of note: Based on a novel by Monica Ali, "Brick Lane" chronicles the life of a young woman (Tannishtha Chatterjee) whose father ships her from Bangladesh to London to marry a supposedly prosperous emigre (Satish Kaushik). Chatterjee's Nazneen lives according to plan -- call it quiet desperation -- until she meets an attractive young man (Christopher Simpson) who opens her eyes to new possibilities. Director Sarah Gavron doesn't plow much fresh ground, but she presents a telling portrait of the lives of those who occupy a kind of limbo, people trying to understand where exactly they can feel at home in the world. Because the main characters are Muslims, Gavron also is able to show the kinds of anger that develops when a population feels that it's being excluded from the mainstream. In brief: Solid, if not inspired, filmmaking about an interesting and increasingly important subject.

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