This is cinema at its purest and best. Illustrious Energy marks a fresh direction for New Zealand films. It is modestly conceived but superbly realised – a triumph of art over budget. Its achievement brings renewed hope to our beleaguered industry
Illustrious Energy, New Zealand, 1988
Director: Leon Narbey
Production co: Mirage Entertainment
Producers: Don Reynolds, Chris Hampson
Screenplay: Martin Edmond, Leon Narbey
Photography: Alan Locke
Designer: Janelle Aston
Editor: David Coulson
Music: Jan Preston
With: Shaun Bao (Chan), Harry Ip (kim), Peter Chin (Wong), Geeling (Li), Desmond Kelly (Surveyor), Heather Bolton (Mrs Wong), Peter Hayden (Reverend Don), David Telford (Stan Pasco)
35mm, colour, 96 minutes, PG
Awards: East-West Centre Award for Best Film and Cinematography Award, Hawaii International Film Festival, 1988. Best Director, Best Cinematographer, Best Design, Best Music, Best Editing, Best Soundtrack, Best Supporting Male Actor (Peter Hayden), Best Supporting Female Actor (Heather Bolton), New Zealand Listener Film and Television Awards, 1988.
World Premiere: Thursday 17 March 1988
Two Chinese gold miners in a remote valley in Central Otago, struggle to improve their lot. The goldrush is over. Their life is tough. When they make a lucky strike on their claim, it seems that they may at last be able to achieve their ambitions. Chan takes the gold and goes to town to pay their debts. Life in town offers unexpected attractions, not the least being a young woman who’s traveling with a small circus. There’s also an undercurrent of violence towards the Chinese, and Chan returns to his partner thinking that they will both return to China. But fate has different plans in store for Chan before he can finally leave the valley.
“In my opinion this is the most assured and sophisticated of recent New Zealand films. The sensitive, intelligent screenplay by director Leon Narbey and Martin Edmond realistically evokes the way early Chinese immigrants lived. And it does so by viewing the world as they did. The landscape and their relationship to it predominates and gives the film some of its most striking images (the cinematography throughout is excellent). Shaun Bao and Harry Ip give fine performances and in brief supporting roles Peter Chin, Heather Bolton and Geeling are also impressive. The superb work of production designer Janelle Aston, costume designer Trixie Woodill and set dress Judith Crozier is most evident in the shanty town scene. The winner of eight Listener Film and Television Awards, the film was also honoured at film festivals in Taormina and Hawaii.” — Douglas Jenkin, NZ Listener, 21 August 1989
“Narbey (the director of photography of Desperate Remedies and Punitive Damage) remains an extremely gifted cinematographer, so the supreme beauty of his own first feature should come as no surprise. Set in Central Otago during the 1860s, Illustrious Energy remains the only New Zealand film to have seriously addressed the sense of cultural dislocation experienced by many Chinese upon their arrival in this country. The harsh conditions endured by prospectors such as Chan and his father-in-law Kim would only be justified if they managed to strike gold. Far from their wives and children and often subject to the racist attitudes of the surrounding Europeans, many Chinese took refuge in opium or alcohol or returned to their homeland when their longing became too great. At least one character in Narbey's evocative work (the orchardist Wong, played by Dunedin resident Peter Chin) offers an alternative possibility, turning one's back on one's place of origin and forging a hybrid identity in a new land. Representing the first of many subsequent generations of New Zealanders of Chinese descent, Wong had consigned his Asian family to the past and married a Scottish woman in Central Otago. There they, along with their mixed race children, would prosper. Local viewers will find that Illustrious Energy's costumes, setting and narrative are rich in documentary detail, since they have often been based upon diaries and photographs dating from the period. Given the close involvement of Dunedin's Chinese community with the making of this film, the Film Society has invited several of the actors to come along and answer questions from the audience after the screening (including Peter Chin).” — Vicki Evans, Otago Film Society, 2003
“The writers of the script, Martin Edmond and I, wanted to examine a period in New Zealand’s history that had not been looked at before. The film takes place in 1895 and the subjects of the film are the Chinese gold-diggers. In 1895 the government passed a bill that resulted in any Chinese person who entered New Zealand having to pay, by law, a poll tax of £100. This was an attempt to restrict Chinese from entering New Zealand, and was part of the Australasian ‘whites only’ policy. This detail of history points to what must have been a general attitude by English-speaking Europeans towards the Chinese who were already in New Zealand by that time. The film is not about the gold rush, but a time thirty years later when old Chinese men were still working remote claims in rocky and barren valleys. We observe their frugal and pragmatic life-style, their sense of alienation and loneliness, being trapped in a foreign land, having come of their own free will. Some were never able to find sufficient gold to return with ‘wealth and honour’ to their ancestral villages in China. Most of the initial research information came from published notebooks and diaries of the Rev. Alexander Don, a Presbyterian minister who tried to convert the Chinese to Christianity as well as make friendships to establish a mission station in Guangdong, South China. It was not only his writing about the Chinese, but also his photos of the Chinese at that time, that were an immense source of information and interest. Recent publications by Dr. James Ng, Dr. Charles Sedgwick and Dr. Neville Ritchie have been of great value for details of life-styles and artifacts.” — A note from the director, 32nd London Film Festival, 1988
“I was tremendously impressed by this uncompromising New Zealand film. By rights, it should become a festival favourite around the world. Its storyline has an essential clarity that reminds me of such classic allegories as Steinbeck’s The Pearl. Leon Narbey’s arresting images render human figures and elemental landscapes with breathtaking assurance. Illustrious Energy makes few concessions to commercial values but is near faultless as a work of art. Narbey has taken as his field of interest the Chinese miners who came to the Otago goldfields last century. The story centres on two men of different generations panning in a forbidding gorge in the South Island’s rain-shadow semi-desert. Narbey illustrates the backbreaking work that consumed entire lifetimes and the sense of exile from homeland that added a second burden to the stoical shoulders of these migrants to New Zealand. In an echo not only of Steinbeck’s story but also of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, he spins the yarn of a great treasure that is found and then lost. After decades of fruitless searching, the dogged Chinese pair uncover a modest bonanza which will finance their trip home. At last their efforts seem fittingly rewarded, but events conspire cruelly to prevent a happy outcome. I particularly enjoyed several magnificent narrative sequences such as the routine of panning, the journeying to market, the shifting of a large stone from the river. All these show visual storytelling at its best, and the Felliniesque touch of a traveling circus is limned in with quick, deft strokes. The relationship of the protagonist Chan with an Austral/Asian girl working as a magician’s assistant makes a superb short story within the larger tale. Chan’s ready acceptance by the circus folk contrasts neatly with the xenophobia of more ‘normal’ New Zealanders. The acting is extraordinary, with Shaun Bao especially affecting in the main role. I only wish some of the dialogue was more clearly enunciated. The unyielding South Island topography becomes a character in its own right, and arcing overhead is a pellucid sky traced by cirrus cloud evocative of Chinese calligraphy.
The film’s ending disappointed in its tone rather than its content but, overall, I was both moved and entertained.” — Brian McDonnell, North & South, 
“The year is 1895, and the goldrush which once filled the desolate valleys of Central Otago with hordes of miners has been over for thirty years. But two Chinese remain: Chan and his father-in-law Kim. Too poor to return home, they eke out a desperate existence, picking over abandoned claims in the hope of finding an overlooked pocket of alluvial gold. Each nurtures a secret desire. For Kim, exhausted after twenty-seven years on the New Zealand gold-fields, it is the simple wish to return to China before he dies. But Chan, watching the European surveyors meticulously mapping the countryside around them, has more ambitious plans. Each dreams of striking gold – but when the strike comes, it brings tragedy and despair in its wake… Illustrious Energy occupies a unique position in New Zealand cinema, being our first film to concentrate on the vital but often overlooked role of the Chinese, and their rich contribution to our heritage. Its seemingly simple story of two impoverished miners and their sad fate, conceals a much more complex drama of human frailty and demolishes many of the myths about the Chinese way of life a century ago. It also faces up to the climate of violence and ugly prejudice that existed towards the Chinese and the ingenious way they were eventually to overcome same without sacrificing their identity. All this makes Illustrious Energy sound like a rather grim lesson in social history – but the film is anything but grim. In a way, its story is rather like its setting. At first glance the Central Otago landscape can look bleak and inhospitable. But closer examination reveals a stark beauty and wealth of vibrant life. So it is with the story and characters in Illustrious Energy. As the film unfolds, strange becomes familiar and the viewer is drawn into the hearts and minds of the characters until they share their destiny. The production values are near flawless. Director Leon Narbey has a painter’s eye for details and the dense colour photography literally textures landscape, players and story into a single form. The most striking thing about Illustrious Energy is the integrity with which it has been made. The courageous decision to initially pace the film until the viewer becomes accustomed to the special way some Chinese speak English: the total avoidance of melodramatic excess to make the film more palatable for overseas; and the willingness to flaw the leading characters with human weakness in the face of temptation. This is cinema at its purest and best. Illustrious Energy marks a fresh direction for New Zealand films. It is modestly conceived but superbly realised – a triumph of art over budget. Its achievement brings renewed hope to our beleaguered industry.” — 1988 International Film Festival
“Illustrious Energy is one of those magical, dream-like 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… Illustrious Energy is a film 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… “ — Helen Martin, Listener, 11 June 1988
Screenings: Illustrious Energy screened on 27 February 2008 as a part of the Big Sky: Empty Land selection of features; and on 8 June 2005 in a selection made by film editor Annie Collins. Commenting on the film Annie says "Leon Narbey's gentleness and breathtaking visual expertise in Illustrious Energy created the isolation and loneliness of migrants which is just as true today as in the 1860's – emotion without words at being locked out by a majority culture. He's such an elegant filmmaker."