This film is about the Chinese that left China in the 19th c. to build railroads in Canada and the US, and of course, has a bit of intrigue and romance as well.
The story follows Little Tiger (Sun Li), a plucky girl living a hardscrabble life on the streets of Hong Kong. Without family or friends, Little Tiger has to pretend that she’s a boy (a la Mulan) and work odd jobs to keep herself afloat. Her dream is to learn English and then go to the “Gold Mountain”, where she thinks she can make some real money and perhaps find her long-lost father, who went there and was never heard from there again.
Fate has it that she runs into James Nichol (Luke McFarlane), the dashing young lad that is sent by his railroad tycoon father to get 2000 coolies to Canada right quick, lest they are not able to finish their railroad and thus forfeit everything to their debtors. From there on in you can expect plenty of fortune cookie-type moments thrown in, and you can guess who falls in love with who, and you can almost guess if there is a happy ending or not.
The two performances that I enjoyed the most were not by either of the main actors, but by Tony Leung Ka Fai as the bookman with the mysterious scar on his face as well as the venerable Peter O’Toole, who gets to play a drunken, aging old China hand responsible for finding workers for the Nichols. Peter O’Toole’s performance is of note, and not because it’s bad–I think it’d be hard for an actor of his caliber to be awful, but there are some ropey lines in there, especially when O’Toole is speaking Chinese and says some cheesy things like “forgive him, he is but a foreign devil” or just “oh shit”…it’s the kind of role that are easy paychecks for O’Toole John Hurt and the like–a sagging face, a slurred voice, drunken routes, world-weary philosophers, a still posh English accent–it’s still a joy to watch but there is, truth be told, nothing of real value in a role or performance of that sort. It adds nothing new. It is, literally, just a role.
The story itself, when it moves to Canada, has normal ups and downs. There are a couple of secrets, a couple of conspirators, a couple of racist baddies, and a few others. There is also supposed to be this streak of melancholy because of all the Chinese workers that lost their lives in this process–they said 3 for every mile of the railroad–and they hit this point home fairly often enough in the movie when random Chinese workers get tragically killed. There are some bits about the emotional lives of the workers–but for the most part, the story is focused on Little Tiger, the she that is a he, as well as James Nichols, who learns a little something about Chinamen, building railroads, and himself in the process.
On the whole, not too bad, but nothing that you really want to waste your time watching if you have something more pressing to do, or something of real quality to watch.