20 March, 2016

Illustrious Energy by Leon Narbey

It was The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton which piqued my curiosity about Chinese immigration to New Zealand during the Gold Rush period in the 19th century. The topic seemed as interesting as underrepresented in New Zealand fiction. But how thrilled I was to learn there is a historical drama film where the events of the same period are told from a Chinese perspective.

It is a pity though the movie has never got near enough attention as Catton’s masterpiece. Unjustly neglected when it first appeared in 1987, it is a lost classic now, yet a must see film for anyone interested in New Zealand history.

The two central characters, played by Chaun Bao and Harry Ip, have been mining in Central Otago without success for many years. They haven’t seen their families for decades now and keep dreaming of going back to China one day. But will their plans ever eventuate?

After a sudden prospect of enormous wealth, the younger of the two goes on his Odysseus' journey to the nearest town. On his way, he experiences seclusion, racism, extreme weather, opium dens and a love affair. He encounters all sorts of different people too.

Such a mix of positive and negative experiences creates a true and unbiased picture of how life was back then. The conversations between European and Chinese migrants on religious and cultural matters are particularly noteworthy.   

Director: Leon Narbey

Recommended by Maria M, Central Library

Maria M believes reading is the best way to understand other people and places. She is an avid bilingual reader who is particularly interested in New Zealand fiction.


  1. Thanks for this post Maria - This was a set film for a NZ on Screen course I did at uni but I never actually got around to watching it. Thanks for reminding me that I need to see this important film!
    ~ Ella

    1. You're very welcome, Ella! I'm glad you found it useful. It's an enjoyable and easy-going film. Definitely worth watching!


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