It has been some time now since we screened Yung Chang’s Up the Yangtze at the last Dinner and a Doc. I had a fair amount that I wanted to write about the film, but I never seemed to find enough consecutive minutes to do this writing. So, rather than leave it waiting any longer, I will just share a single image from the film and leave the rest for another occasion.
The image that I found most intriguing was a shot of a sandal floating upside down on the river. In the dry centre of the sandal’s sole is a piece of food, a vegetable of some sort, and it is surrounded by ants, which are running back and forth between the food and the wet edges of the shoe. They are surrounded on every side by water. They must choose whether to float on the river until they are baked by the sun or to risk the water and drown.
This shot means on multiple levels, of course. It allegorizes our limited planet with its limited resources and our seemingly unlimited demands. It represents the way that the rising river has carried people away from their homes, has forced them to move or to drown. It parallels the earlier shot where the female protagonist’s home is gradually surrounded and then engulfed by the river. It symbolizes the tour boats on which this young girl is trying to make her living, where she serves rich tourists as they sail over the fields that her parents had once farmed.
I also wonder, however, whether this last level of meaning might be doubling as a commentary on the tourists themselves. Perhaps, in one sense at least, the ants represent, not the Chinese workers trapped by the repercussions of the flood, but the foreign tourists trapped by the assumptions of their wealth and culture and privilege. Perhaps they are ones who are floating on the river, eating blithely from the buffet, unaware of the predicament that their consumption is creating. I am both amused and disconcerted by this possibility.