VIFF review: The Six brings history to life in revealing the untold tale of the Titanic's Chinese survivors

It's an astonishing documentary, capturing the hardship faced by Chinese pioneers in North America

    1 of 4 2 of 4

      The sinking of the RMS Titanic in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic is the most famous shipwreck in history.

      The subject of Hollywood films, countless books, fan pages, and even a virtual-reality simulation project, it's hard to conceive that more can be learned from this disaster.

      But a documentary at the upcoming Vancouver International Film Festival, The Six, does this with aplomb, telling the riveting and untold tale of eight third-class Chinese passengers aboard the vessel, six of whom survived.

      One of them, Fang Lang, clutched to a door at sea as he was pulled to safety—inspiring a similar scene with Rose, played by Kate Winslet, in James Cameron's famous 1997 film Titanic.

      Who was Fang Lang?

      Why did he and seven other Chinese third-class passengers board the Titanic in Southampton on April  10,1914?

      And why haven’t the stories of these Chinese passengers ever been told before when so many other Titanic survival stories have been documented in incredible detail?

      Shanghai-based lead researcher Steven Schwankert and his team take viewers on an astonishing journey to find the answers. There are stops in London, Halifax, New York, Chicago, a village in China's Guangdong province, and the Ontario cities of Toronto and Cambridge in unravelling this mystery.

      With Cameron as one of the executive producers, it's not surprising that this documentary has exceptionally high production values.

      Video: James Cameron discusses the Chinese passengers on the Titanic.

      Shanghai-based British director Arthur Jones (The Poseidon Project) makes outstanding use of historical photography, animation, and even a re-creation of one of the lifeboats in bringing this story to life. Viewers are taken aboard the Titanic and shown various escape routes. The film's producer, Luo Tong, ensured that the director had all the tools he needed.

      The Six even includes a vivid demonstration, featuring Schwankert submerged in cold water. This is intended to show how very tough Fang Lang had to be to make history as the shipwreck’s final survivor.

      But it's the Chinese passengers' lives, both before and after the voyage, that are the most compelling aspect of the story.

      This is not only about a supposedly unsinkable ship colliding with a giant iceberg; it's an inspiring tale of the resilience and strength of Chinese pioneers who faced untold discrimination on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean in the first half of the 20th century.

      With meticulous historical research, Schwankert's team proves without a doubt that these Chinese passengers were defamed in subsequent accounts of their escape from the ship. Viewers learn about their shameful treatment upon their arrival in New York.

      Video: Meet the researchers whose stunning efforts provided the backbone of The Six's story line.

      Those with a keen interest in the history of Chinese pioneers to North America will be delighted by the film's respectful and accurate depiction of the so-called "paper sons": immigrants who had to change their names in order to get into North America because of draconian and racist legislation.

      The Six likely won't generate the anywhere near the revenue of Cameron's blockbuster starring Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. 

      But this documentary is a far more important film.

      That’s because by telling a fully contextualized story, The Six builds empathy and appreciation for the struggles of Chinese pioneers who helped build Canada into the country it is today. It's a powerful statement against anti-Asian hate and offers a beacon to a brighter future.

      Video: Watch the trailer for The Six.
      The Six will have its North American premiere at the Vancouver International Film Festival, which runs from October 1 to 11. During the festival, it will be available on-demand online and will be screened on October 4 at the Vancity Theatre.