New Zealand renowned cinematographer Leon Narbey is in Nelson to show his film about Central Otago's early Chinese goldminers to the Nelson Film Society at the State Cinema tomorrow evening.
Following the release of Illustrious Energy in 1987, Narbey's directorial debut film won eight New Zealand film awards, including best feature film and best film director.
Many of those who worked with Narbey won awards for their contribution, including co-writer Martin Edmond, cinematographer Alan Locke, and Jan Preston, who wrote the film score.
The project was initially intended as a half-hour television documentary. However, it soon developed into a full-length feature. It portrays a significant period in New Zealand's history which hadn't been explored in film before.
After the British settlers had abandoned their mines at the end of the gold rush in the 1860s, New Zealand allowed many of the Chinese to rework some of the remote claims in the rocky, barren valleys. This was a time when the country had a "whites only" policy, and there were attempts to limit Asian immigration.
In the story, Chan and father-in-law Kim, who have been in Otago for many years, need to pay off their debts before they can return to China and see their wives and children.
They work their claim in isolation and extreme weather, and encounter prejudice, threats, opium, prostitutes and even a circus romance.
Narbey was inspired by Nelson author Peter Butler's Opium and Gold, a history of goldminers in New Zealand. He then drew his inspiration from photographs and notebooks of missionary Alexander Don, who kept meticulous notes, recording them in Chinese and English.
Illustrious Energy is visual storytelling at its best. The tale is told through images of man and landscape, earth and sky. With Narbey's eye for detail, the dense colour photography literally textures the landscape, players and story, forming a single entity.
The film has been restored and reformatted for the latest computerised projection, which is only available in selected cinemas.
Illustrious Energy is worth its weight in gold and has a story, which nearly disappeared from New Zealand history.
No doubt the director will tell us more about the trail he had to blaze to find the original negative and to get it back to New Zealand.
- Illustrious Energy, Leon Narbey, New Zealand, 1987, 97 minutes, DCP, Nelson Film Society, State Cinema, tomorrow 6.15pm. Members only. Join at the door.
- © Fairfax NZ News