The Banana Times was graciously invited to the world premiere of Iron Road at York University in Toronto, Ontario. Iron Road is a period film about the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway in the early 1880s and the tragedies that surrounded it. Directed by David Wu, the film revolves around Little Tiger, a young Chinese girl from Hong Kong disguised as a boy who took the opportunity to earn money and search for her missing father by signing up to work for the railway.
When we were first invited to the screening and was told it was about Chinese immigrants who worked on the Canadian Railway, I immediately thought it was a documentary. But in fact it was a Canadian-produced feature with Sam Neill (Jurassic Park), Peter O’Toole (Laurence Of Arabia) and Hong Kong star Tony Leung-Ka Fai (Election).
Prior to the movie, many high-ranking members of the film industry and the government made several speeches, most notably David Miller, the Mayor of Toronto. In my opinion, the speeches were more influential and inspiring than the film itself.
Mayor Miller reminded us of Prime Minister Harper’s national apology to the Chinese population in 2006 for the head tax placed on Chinese immigrants after the railroad was completed. Another speaker said that none of the 15,000 Chinese workers were invited to the grand opening of the railway, and how they could not bring their families over because of the $500 head tax which at the time was worth over two years salary.
It was announced at the end of the screening that the film was not the final cut and many parts were taken out. If this were said at the beginning, I would’ve understood the choppy sound editing and pixelization of the image. I also discovered later that Iron Road is going to be released as a mini-series and not in theatres, which again, would have bred more understanding from the audience. On to the review:
Very mild spoiler alert
Little Tiger, played by Sun Li, was a firecracker salesman (salesgirl?) in Hong Kong and has a lot of experience with explosives which she demonstrates on the railroad. Sun’s performance was strong throughout the film and definitely stole the spotlight away from her counterpart Luke MacFarlane whose awkwardness never ceased, especially when his character abruptly fell in love with Little Tiger. I had to hold back laughter when he said, “Tiger! I love you!”. Sagat’s going to be confused.
Sam Neill played the father of MacFarlane’s character and held his ground as the ambitious manager of the railroad construction. My favourite part of the movie was Peter O’Toole’s witty performance as the British agent in Hong Kong who was responsible for gathering Chinese men for the railroad. His drunken, humorous personality and fatherly attitude towards Tiger alone should have earned him a much larger role.
Making a fiction feature film in Canada is beyond difficult without an abundance of helping hands. The application for numerous funds and joint productions is the reason why there is a lack of Canadian feature films. The selection process of these applications is also very strict as they require clear identification of Canadian culture, whatever that is, and market appeal.
Certainly the historic backdrop of Iron Road assimilates to the backbone of Canadian origins. But the inclusion of a sappy and unrealistic romance between a Canadian railroad manager and a Chinese girl disguised as a boy, diminishes the importance of this dark period in Canadian history. In the end, the film was not about the experiences of the Chinese railroad workers but the gut-wrenching melodrama between the two leads. There was so much that could have been expanded, but the cheesy romance prevailed. Imagine Saving Private Ryan not conveying the solider-life of World War II, but a love story between Tom Hanks and a German prostitute.
Other than the unnecessary romance, the repetitive soundtrack constantly dropped out at the end of certain scenes. Again, not knowing it was not the final cut, I would’ve understood the choppy editing. Several shots in the scenes of Hong Kong were largely pixelized, especially on objects with bright colours, as if they forgot to render their timeline on Final Cut or Premiere.
With the cheese and Hollywood assimilation aside, the racial and historic context of the film was clear. Without the passionate commentary made before the film by important figures of our industry and government, the film would have plummeted further.
Overall, the message was received, and I salute the families of those who worked on the railroad in order for us to have such a diverse and accepting society today.
The Banana Verdict:
out of 10