Iron Road (2008)

TV miniseries review: Iron Road (2008)

Canadian railroad tycoon Alfred Nichol (Sam Neill) is on the brink of financial ruin. He has a railway line to finish building, and he expected two thousand Chinese workers that are nowhere to be seen. Therefore, he sends his son James (Luke Macfarlane) to Hong Kong to investigate. In China, he meets Relic (Peter O’Toole), who can speak Chinese and can help him.

In China, we see the other side of the story – Little Tiger (Betty Sun) works in a fireworks factory and is learning about black powder. She (if you didn’t realise that the first time you see her face, you FAIL!) is posing as a boy and is learning English from Relic, and promises James she can find his workers – and she wants to be one of them, but she keeps meeting with resistance, because she’s just a young boy, what can (s)he do? Little Tiger’s father went to “Gold Mountain” when she was younger, and they said he died, but she still wants to go look for him – and “Gold Mountain” (Canada) is where the railroad’s at.

In Canada, which is of course where Little Tiger manages to get to in the end, or there wouldn’t be much of a story, the Bookman (Tony Leung Ka Fai) and two of the white men in charge of the operation (Kenneth Mitchell and Ian Tracey) are swindling money. Because she caused a lot of trouble for a local gang leader in Hong Kong, Little Tiger finds herself not just being followed to Canada, but is also torn between trying to find her father, getting trusted to work with black powder and her growing feelings for James … who still thinks she’s a boy. All the while, the railroad needs finishing as soon as possible, or they’ll all be without money.

Back in the days of the old Sam Neill Mailing List (R.I.P. SNeill), this is the sort of production that would be branded “N.E.S.” – Not Enough Sam. The little he does grace us with his presence, he’s a grumpy git. A good-looking one, granted, but a grumpy, shouty git nonetheless. It was a bit of a change to see Macfarlane get it on with a girl – his character Scotty in Brothers & Sisters was gay – because he starts out being a bit of a playboy. Good performance. O’Toole is a gem, like you’d expect, but the shining star is Betty Sun, or Sun Li, as she’s billed as here. Little Tiger is no meek little lotus flower, she’s a fiery, ambitious survivor and she means business. Not just that, she’s also highly skilled at her work with fireworks, and you want her to succeed.

The question of if her father really is dead or not stares you in the face for a long time, until you think “aww, now she’s NEVER going to find out!” It was predictable, to say the least. More of a surprise was that no one called Little Tiger’s bluff. Ever. She shared a tent with men, she even shared a cargo hold across the Pacific with them, and no one ever thought she was a woman and not a teenage boy. Sounds a bit improbable to me, especially since it was so obvious she was a girl the first time she appears on screen. In fact, it’s not until a few minutes in we learn that she’s pretending to be a boy. Oh well.

This two-part miniseries (each part about 90 minutes long) is not exactly highly paced, but it’s a good story well told. To follow the Chinese railroad workers is fascinating, as the only thing I’ve ever “learned” about it has been in Western films and reading Lucky Luke … neither of which are famous for their historical accuracy. It also shows us what the employers thought of their workers (very little), and what the workers’ daily lives might have looked like, and what they had to endure. For that, I salute Iron Road, and will definitely watch again at some point.

4 out of 5 firecrackers.

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