(Leon Narbey, New Zealand, 1988) 90 minutes


Director: Leon Narby
Producer: Don Reynolds
Screenplay: Martin Edmond,
Leon Narby
Photography: Alan Locke
Editor: David Coulson
Music: Jan Preston
Shaun Bao (Chan)
Harry Ip (Kim)
Peter Chin (Wong)
Geeling (Li)
Desmond Kelly (Surveyor)
Heather Bolton (Mrs Wong)

Reviews and notes

From the opening shots the elements and the landscape dominate. The skyscape is gorgeous yet somehow intractable and as the camera moves to the bareness of the plains and the coarseness of the towering rock faces nature seems less hostile than indifferent. The birds that swoop by are tiny in comparison. So are the three men who dig then scratch in the earth, retrieving bones from which all the flesh has fallen. The Oriental-style music, soft yet insistent, weaves a spell of calm and peace. Death and decay are part of that.

ILLUSTRIOUS ENERGY is one of those magical, dreamlike films that quietly and slowly draws you into another place and holds you there, mesmerised by the images and enchanted by the story. The setting, Central Otago's goldfields, 1895, provides frame after gorgeous frame of visual feasting. The rhythm sets a pace with which the viewer can be at ease and while there are tensions and conflicts enough, the editing style provides time for thought and reflection.

The storyline is deceptively simple, focusing on two characters whose days are Iargly uneventful. Chinese immigrant Chan {Shaun Bao) and his father-in-law Kim (Harry Ip) have remained behind on the goldfields, scratching around in old claims in the hope of striking it rich. In China Chan has a son he has never seen and his fantasies of wealth are fed by his increasingly urgent desire to be with his family. Old Kim, whose suspicious avoidance of two surveyors who enter the district reflects his dogged refusal to come to terms with change, has lost all hope of riches and wants only to be able to pay his way home. When change does come - and of course not in the form either of the men expect - the tragedies that follow carry with them a classic sense of inevitability.

There is an air of myth, a sort of "once upon a time" quality, that lends the narrative the force of allegory without ever detracting from the immediacy and realism. The blending of the "mythic" and the "real" is such that we can assimilate the sudden appearance of a travelling circus, complete with masqued clowns and whirling acrobats, while we are at the same time seeing that for the Chinese in this foreign land the fantasy of finding a place to stand is constantly slamming up against the prejudice and violence of the white-faced settlers.

ILLUSTRIOUS ENERGY is a fiIm of many contrasts and one of its strengths is that while it plays with ideas of myth and archetype as a means of examining some of the more profound philosophical questions, it never loses sight of the necessity of reflecting a range of possibilities. Chan is beaten by children and adults, but his friend Wong (Peter Chin) stands as evidence that by playing it right it was possible to make a living in the "new" country. The local reverend (Peter Hayden) offers companionship, of a sort, and the jovial circus workers warmly welcome anyone, regardless of race, into their troupe.

It is in its probing of questions about the nature of existence that ILLUSTRIOUS ENERGY becomes really fascillating. Writer/director Leon Narbey, with writer Martin Edmond, weaves such questions into the script quite subtly yet the cumulative effect is very powerful.

How, the film asks, does a person transplanted from one culture to another, maintain a connection to their origins? Wong marries a Scot and fathers half-caste children, without regard for his family back home. lvlany of the immigrant Chinese while away their time with prostitutes and opium, dreaming, probably, of places they will never see again. Chan, complex and pragmatic, has shaken off the beliefs he was brought up with and insists on a philosophy more suited to the harshness of his new country. While to the old man the plum tree's collapse is like a portent of ill fortune and to the viewer the caged cricket is a palpable image of the miner's entrapment, Chan's philosophy seems as good as any to see him through. "Heaven is just the sky....I see the sky. I feel the earth. I walk in between like any man."
- Helen Martin, The Listener, 11 June 1988.

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