VIFF 2015 | Tricks on the Dead

Posted by Shirley Li & filed under Film Festival, VIFF.


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Tricks on the Dead: The Story of the Chinese Labour Corps in WWI

Dir: Jordan Paterson | BC Spotlight, Canadian Images, VIFF Impact | China, Canada, France, Belgium | 2014 | 95 mins

Oct 04 03:45pm | SFU Woodwards

Jordan Paterson’s docudrama digs into the little known story of the 140,000 Chinese labourers that were shipped to the Western front in World War I. Over 80,000 of these men were transported across Canada on their way to Europe the largest mass migration in Canadian history.

Paterson, who is based in Richmond, B.C., hopes to “restore the collective memory of those in China, and around the world” of these forgotten labourers who journeyed a century ago to participate in the war effort.

Tricks on the Dead weaves together a Shandong University student’s search to uncover some of the forgotten labourers, stories from their descendants, footage from war archives, and re-enactments of the labourers’ journey in a tale that stretches across three continents.

The film begins in Shandong province, from which many of these men originated. Zhang Yan, a history student from Shandong University, visits multiple villages in the province to meet with the descendants of the labourers. Many of the men recruited were poor farmers who joined in order to earn money for their family and had little idea of the magnitude of the war. While many of the descendants have grown old or have forgotten, the pain remains the pain of not knowing where their ancestors have died, that their bodies were buried thousands of miles from their homeland.

Zhang’s journey then takes him to Canada, where many of the Chinese labourers passed through on their way to Europe. Canada’s role in the transport of these workers remains largely unknown to Canadians due to the efforts of the federal government. But at a time when the Chinese Head Tax was still present and only a few years prior to the enactment of the Chinese Immigration Act, it’s to no one’s surprise that the stories of the 84,000 men were erased. Paterson also notes that while the population in Mainland China is more aware of the labourers’ story, the Chinese Canadian community in British Columbia, which holds the greatest proportion of Chinese Canadians, has little to no knowledge of these events.

Following the labourers’ journey, the film at last arrives in Paris. The camera pans to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier while the heavy question of the recognition of the Chinese labourers remains in the air. While the film prods at this question over and over as it moves across continents, its full answer remains unknown.

Paterson’s retracing of the workers’ path not only emphasizes on the Chinese workers’ anonymity, but also of its effect on China’s path to becoming a world power as they turned to communism following the betrayal of the Western powers at the Paris Peace Conference.

What really pulls the audience in are the intertwining narratives of the labourers, their families and descendants, the student’s research, and even the British officers and doctors. The many perspectives offer an introduction to the history of the Chinese labourers, scratching the surface to a problem that had been buried for a century.

With the docudrama’s beautiful cinematography and effortless flow between multiple stories, there is no doubt that the tales of the Chinese labourers will be further unearthed from its century-long hibernation.

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