Friday, February 07, 2014

Illustrious Energy

Just caught up with the movie, Illustrious Energy, after not having seen it since it first came out in 1988. I'm not alone in not having seen it. Apparently the production company went bust about the time the movie came out, and it was seized by the receivers, and sold to a company in Los Angeles. It was re-sold and retitled, and then the master negative was lost. It looked as though it would be the end of the movie, apart from random copies on video and such that still existed. Finally, as recently as 2011, the negative was discovered in West London, and restored. I've just seen it on DVD, and the beauty of the photography is one of its marvels.

The cast is a bit variable. Shaun Bao, a Chinese actor, is very good, though his English isn't always as clear as it might be - he was in NZ learning English when the film was being cast. Harry Ip from Hong Kong plays his father-in-law, and since a good deal of his dialogue consists of shouting at some 'white devil' or other, it's not important that we can't always understand him. Peter Chin, of Dunedin, later to be its Mayor for a number of years (and a friend of mine for decades, through accompanying him when he was singing), is the third main Chinese character. His normal NZ accent appears occasionally; otherwise he sounds a bit stilted in trying to be a Chinese for whom English is a second language. There are a few other familiar Dunedin Chinese faces too.

The Chinese aren't the only ones having trouble with accents: two women are supposed to be Irish. Their accents are surprisingly weak. 

The white members of the cast mostly play villains, or people who might be villains. They're all a bit stereotyped, which isn't the fault of the actors. Peter Hayden plays the Christian minister Alexander Don, an actual historical person who had a real heart for the Chinese 'lost' in the goldfields, both literally and spiritually. Here he's presented as bumptious, know-it-all and pushy in his evangelism; he's seen from a typically secular point of view, and given no credit for the work that he actually did.

The story is a typically gloomy NZ one: Bao and his father-in-law are trying to get gold in Central from a claim that's probably already played out. They owe money to Chin's character, as well as lacking cash to get back to China, where Bao has a wife and son - whom he's never seen. Unexpectedly they strike gold, and do very well, but through a series of unfortunate incidents, the gold is hidden by Ip, who dies before he can reveal where it is.

There are scenes in a small Central goldfields town, a circus, some calls to Bao to change from digging for gold to actually making a real living. And the tragedy.  These are all small-scale events, but what makes the movie is the grandeur and oddity of the scenery (shot in Alexander and other places close by), the brightness and harshness of the landscape - especially where the two Chinese have their claim - and the way things are placed in front of the camera: there are a great number of evocative shots, mood shots, that have Leon Narby's hand all over them. He was actually the director, but plainly he had a great deal to do with how things were filmed.

Probably not a film you'd watch over and over for the story or acting, but certainly that appeals to the eye. And the ear: the music is superb.


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