299: Two new films invite us to see the bittersweet beauty of invisible women

hese are the kinds of recommendations we love to make at ReadTheSpirit, concerning two films about the sometimes heartbreaking, real-life beauty of women who would normally remain invisible to us.
    We say loudly and clearly in our founding principles: “The most powerful spiritual stories are in the lives of the ordinary people we meet.” Except that—sometimes “ordinary people” are invisible to us, especially the women whose stories are told in these two movies. Normally, we would pass both of them without thinking twice about their lives.
    Thanks to talented filmmakers, we get to pause in these two cases—and new spiritual worlds open up in front of us.

    The two films are: “Up the Yangtze,” a documentary about how dramatic cultural changes in China affect one teen-aged girl, and “Accidental Friendship,” a Hallmark Channel movie about a homeless woman, debuting at 9 p.m. Eastern Time on Sunday, November 15.


    Don’t miss this film. Our recommendation is that simple. Unlike “Yangtze,” which you’ll have to purchase on DVD, “Accidental Friendship” is free on cable systems carrying the Hallmark Channel.
    If you’re like me, though, you’ll see a photo like the one above showing actress Chandra Wilson (who plays Dr. Miranda Bailey on “Grey’s Anatomy”) dressed as a homeless woman and you’ll quickly decide you’d rather watch something else. After a stressful day, sitting down to a hard-edged story about poverty doesn’t sound like much fun.

    The story isn’t fun, but it will touch you and you’ll be glad you took this cinematic adventure. It’s a moving experience to watch partly because it’s true. “Accidental Friendship” is based on a real series of events that unfolded in 2003 involving a homeless woman named Yvonne who earned the attention and eventually the respect of a policewoman, because of their mutual love of dogs. The policewoman had a special affection for strays and was known for finding good adoptive homes for dogs. She was intrigued to discover this homeless woman who lovingly cared for strays, as well. Their friendship finally prompted the secretive Yvonne to share her complex story of moving from a relatively prosperous life into utter poverty and despair.
    As we finally learn Yvonne’s story, we begin to realize that most of us are just a couple of paychecks and maybe a couple of bad personal breaks away from poverty.
    “Accidental Friendship” co-stars Ben Vereen as another resident of back alleys and abandoned homes, a man whose story parallel’s Yvonne’s. He was a happily productive small-business owner who fell into a series of catastrophes that left him searching through trash bins for his next meal, as well.
    The story of the two homeless friends, then the story of the policewoman who becomes involved in their lives—and the lovable dogs themselves—makes for compelling drama.
    I won’t spoil the outcome, but there are some sharp edges to this movie. Nevertheless, it’s a testament to the spiritual strength of the real Yvonne—and millions of homeless people like her around the world.


    “Up the Yangtze” proves that sometimes the outcome of cultural change isn’t nearly as heartwarming as Yvonne’s story.
    In fact, “Yangtze” could be described as the mirror reverse of “Accidental Friendship.” It’s the story of a teen-age girl Yu Shui who moves from a warm and loving home to what amounts to homelessness—all in the name of modernizing her homeland, China.

    The documentary comes to DVD, via Zeitgeist Films, with an impressive pedigree. The PBS network aired it nationally. Various regional film festivals bestowed honors. Critics love the film.
    It’s an amazing piece of documentary filmmaking. For instance, we see footage shot by candlelight in Yu Shui’s tiny ramshackle farmhouse along the Yangtze River. Her parents know that the Yangtze is about to rise dramatically, when the enormous Three Gorges Dam is completed. They know that their tiny farm will be washed away. Meanwhile, Yu Shui is contemplating her own dreams of training for a profession.
    Over a meager family dinner of noodles one evening, she dares to tell her parents that she hopes to continue her education because she knows that China needs “talented, educated” young people. She’s hoping to become a professional and helping to shape the world’s future, she explains.
    But her parents are illiterate. Their family situation is dire. They tell her that her plans must be put on hold.
    Instead, Yu Shui is signed onto one of the luxury cruise ships that now carry tourists down the ever-widening Yangtze River. She is renamed Cindy, given a uniform and a small bunk on a lower deck of the big ship and sent into the kitchen to wash dishes. Eventually, she is taught how to interact with American guests and is allowed to help serve food in the dining room.

    She longs to return home and, on a couple of occasions, she manages to return to the tiny family farm for emotional reunions. But the Three Gorges Dam, an enormous power plant, is nearing completion. We see signs popping up throughout the film of the looming floods that will vastly increase the depth and width of the river.
    The documentary would be unbearable to watch if Cindy’s new managers on the cruise ship were evil task masters. They aren’t. In fact, they’re compassionate adults, trying to make their own future in China’s rapidly changing culture.
    Again, I won’t spoil the end of the film by describing exactly what transpires at the end—but you won’t forget the final scenes.
    Between these two films, we see homeless men and women yearning for communities—and communities yearning for a brighter future that ultimately leaves many people homeless. In these stories, we meet two women, Yvonne and Yu Shui, who we might encounter in our travels and yet most likely would never engage in conversation.

    “Yangtze” opens with these words from Confucius:
    “By three methods we may learn wisdom:
    “First by reflection, which is noblest;
    “Second by imitation, which is easiest;
    “And third by experience, which is the bitterest.”

    In light of this wisdom, try to see these two films, meet these two women—and reflect on what we can learn from them about the spiritual value of the invisible people living all around us.

    Click on the cover of the “Yangtze” DVD or click here and you’ll jump to our Amazon-affiliated shop where you can read a further review of this film and other recommended books and films as well.

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