the story follows two central figures, one middle class young man and a poor girl from a very rural family, working on an elaborate, decadent cruise ship catering to westerners with their downy, doughy forms and guileless, placid demeanors, who follow the river in its' last throes of life.
there is also attention paid to the girl's family, who represent the old china, caught in the hinterlands that mark those too old, poor, and uneducated to be pushed with all the inexorable, unyielding force of the river into modernity. they are some of the 2 million people replaced by the dam project - driven from the only way of life they know by more than the impassive slow surge of water. they're the impotent negative balances obliterated by a tidal wave of capitalism, nationalism, and power. i haven't seen a documentary this affecting in a long, long time. watching the girl's father, the perpetual hollows beneath the sharp planes of his cheeks, his body worn down by work to an assemblage of skin and bones and sinew made operational by nothing more than a sheer force of grim will, watching his own obsolence and meeting his fate in this new world with resigned, bemused grace that would be inspiring if the very necessity of it all didn't make it all the more tragic...it made me squirm with discomfort at my own decadence and brought tears to my eyes. we are so spoiled in the west. i am so spoiled. the father and mother's awkward nervousness when they are invited to board the ship where they've sent their daughter to work makes me physically uncomfortable with the piercing aftershocks of their humbling. it makes me want to cry just thinking about it...reliving that scene - the father dressed in a grimey t-shirt...his halting, stoop-shouldered steps, his self-deprecating deference in the face of the gaudy opulence of the boat and of the life he's pushing his young daughter towards...creating an ever-widening experiential chasm between them, severing the familial ties with the discordant cut of material promise.
at one point, eating by the light of smoky, cheap candles in his ramshackle hut, held together by lord knows what makeshift industriousness, he ask his daughter, on one of her visits home, if she still wants to return to visit her poor family, this after querying his daughter on the quality of the meals, the availability of meat at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. she says yes, she still wants to visit, but the silence after her statement stretches and fills the space between the word and the hulking, oppressive, unspoken reality.
it's hard for me to express the pull of this film...it's so compact, so quiet, yet the filmmaker accomplishes and relates so much in the negative space that breathes in the still perfection of the images, in the silences between the words, and in the knowing far-gazing eyes of the subjects.
i can't recommend it enough.