Though I haven’t seen Li Yifan and Yan Yu’s first documentary Before the Flood (淹没), I just watched Before the Flood II at the Hong Kong International Film Festival. The last couple years have produced a fair amount of cinematic attention on the impact of the Three-Gorge Dam, with films like Jia Zhangke’s 2006 feature Still Life (三峡好人)and Canadian director Yung Chang’s 2007 documentary Up the Yangtze. But Yan Yu’s long-term commitment to the subject matter (he has spent the last six years working on these films) shines through in this latest effort to chronicle the human cost of a project that has forced 1.4 million people to relocate.
In this film, Yan profiles the residents of Gongtan, a 1700-year-old Chongqing village perched on the banks of a Yangtze River tributary. His intimate access to the villagers and their grassroots resistance is incredible (the fact that he’s from Chongqing didn’t hurt). In one scene, officials from the relocation committee have come to meet with the villagers. The officials struggle to get the crowd’s attention as a group unfurls a large red banner that reads, “The people of Gongtan stand together to protest relocation.” In another scene, villagers face off with construction workers who have descended on Gongtan, ready to tear down homes without anyone’s consent. With the determination reminiscent of the nail house owners, one man declares, “Why would I be scared of the government? We’re going to take this to the end.”
Yan’s cinematography, editing pace and style (no narration or long title cards) have combined to produce a sensitive portrait of a community that has drawn closer in the face of unprecedented change. When the fight is over, we see villagers moving their belongings without any assistance. Men walk on sloped mountain pathways with massive wooden armoires and full-size refrigerators strapped to their backs. Still, Yan remains optimistic: “There are legal ways of protesting now,” he told me after the screening. “Thirty years ago, something like this couldn’t have happened in China. The fact that there is dialogue now—that’s the biggest improvement.”