Looming over the film, physically and metaphorically, is the nearly complete Three Gorges Dam in the interior province of Hubei; begun in 1994 and scheduled for completion in 2011, it's the largest hydroelectric project in history, and China's most ambitious public works effort since the Great Wall. Some scientists theorize the collected weight of water may affect the earth's rotational axis.
The environmental impact of Three Gorges has been widely reported, but Chang is more concerned with the social costs. Some 1.4 million residents have been relocated by the Chinese government to date, with the total number of those affected estimated at up to 4 million, or 1.5 percent of the provincial population. "Up the Yangtze" skips over the enormity of numbers, though, and shows us a handful of people desperately trying to adapt.
One of the dam's more bizarre consequences has been the rise of a bustling tourist economy. Luxury ships, dubbed "Farewell Cruises," take wealthy Western tourists up the Yangtze for a last look at the ghost towns and cliff faces before they disappear beneath the current. Signs posted on the banks show the level where water will eventually reach; these function as both promise and threat.
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