Vancouver-based producer Raymond Massey can’t wait to work another project in China. Massey spent about six months in the country working on Iron Road—a dramatic portrayal of the Chinese workers who toiled on the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway in the 1880s—and he says emphatically that he “loved it”.
Massey became involved with the production when he received a phone call “out of the blue” from producer Anne Tait in Toronto, who had optioned the film rights to a contemporary opera written by Mark Brownell and Chan Ka Nin and was searching for a West Coast producer. “The full version of the film,” he explains in a phone interview, “is a greatly expanded version of that initial story idea that was in the opera.”
According to the Web site for the Iron Road opera, the original story was inspired by Chan’s discovery that there was one woman who travelled among 265 migrants to British Columbia in the 1860s, a time when Chinese women were not allowed in Canada.
The film version, helmed by Chinese Canadian director David Wu, follows Little Tiger (played by Fearless’s Sun Li), a spunky, female streetkid disguised as a boy who seeks to find out what happened to her father who died working on the Canadian railroad. When she meets James Nichol (Brothers and Sisters’ Luke Macfarlane), who is sent to China to recruit cheap labour to finish off his father’s railroad project, she seizes her chance to go to Canada. The supporting cast includes Peter O’Toole (Lawrence of Arabia), as a recruiting agent who teaches Little Tiger how to speak English, and Tony Leung Ka Fai (The Lover), as the bilingual manager of the Chinese work camp.
A special presentation of the film will be shown in Vancouver at Fifth Avenue Cinemas on July 29 (7 p.m.) with director Wu in attendance. An extended version will later be shown as a two-part miniseries on CBC TV (August 9 and 16, 8 p.m.).
Massey says he jumped at the opportunity to work on the film for its social importance. “None of the key team that initially optioned the property are Chinese, or married to Chinese, or we don’t have any direct ethnic reason or cultural reason to do that,” he says. “As Canadians, we felt it was an important story waiting to be told.”
Although the characters and story were based or inspired on real life, and while many elements are historically accurate, Massey emphasizes that this is a dramatic feature. “The Asian community has really gotten behind the film, but they’ve openly said we wish it was more accurate, you know there’s so many details missing, but that’s not what we set out to do. That’s the documentary that you need to go and find somewhere else. This is entertainment.”
Nonetheless, the film does help to draw attention to a long-omitted chapter in Canadian history. Also noteworthy is the fact that the film is the first Canada-China coproduction in over 20 years.
Massey did face some challenges in securing financial backing for the project as both he and his team lacked Chinese business experience. “I had little allowances for translators, and some of the key team and advisors were bilingual, but I totally blew my estimate of how many translators I would need, and how much I needed to spend on translating key documents, legal documents, the script drafts, that sort of thing”¦At one point, I had 15 translators on payroll.”
What did work in Massey’s favour was a Canadian political event in 2006. “As soon as the script was finished and we were really setting out to finalize the financing, it happened to coincide with Harper’s apology [for the Chinese Head Tax] in the House of Commons, and I happened to be in Beijing at the time, and there was an article on the front page of the China Daily newspaper that I ended up basically, later the same day, flopping the paper down in front of investors in China, and it was an incredible response in China to that gesture.”
Yet while there were challenges were overcome in China, unexpected cultural difficulties arose back here in B.C., where shooting took place in Kelowna, Kamloops, and Lynn Canyon. “Because there’s a fairly significant Asian population throughout the Interior”¦we just assumed we’d put out a call and we’d have lots of Asians respondents to play extras in the background in the film. We only found maybe a dozen people locally up there”¦So we ended up bringing a lot of people from Vancouver, which is not what we had originally planned to do or budgeted to. It was horribly expensive, complicated, and that was one of the hardest things to manage, just getting people to play the Chinese workers”¦You have a well-fed, iPod generation, and no takers.”
It was quite a contrast to what happened when the crew was filming on the other side of the world. “In China, it was the opposite. If you put out a call, you’d have hundreds of people show up, and they’d happily leave work in the fields to spend a few days on camera and get paid peanuts for it, happily toiling away in the sunshine”¦.And the attitude of the Chinese workers was astounding. It wouldn’t matter how foul the conditions were: dry, dusty, hot, raining, pouring, muddy. If I showed up out of a van carrying two things in each hand, six people would come sprinting out of the forest and grab the stuff out of my hand and not let me carry anything.
“And I loved the attitude,” he adds. “The film crew itself was double-size of what we would have here, it was much less mechanized, lots more pairs of hands, but a great, happy attitude that goes along with it”¦Not that I have miserable crews here, but I have to say there’s a marked difference in the approach to getting through a day’s work.”
With such a positive experience in China, it’s no wonder that Massey is eager to head back to the East Asian powerhouse to make more films. “China’s in the public consciousness worldwide. You can’t escape the impact that it is having economically, that it’s having politically”¦it’s a remarkable time.”