There were a lot of firsts for Melbourne director Corrie Chen when she took on New Gold Mountain. A lavish SBS-produced limited series exploring the integral role of Chinese immigrants in the Gold Rush, the sprawling murder mystery is the biggest project of her career to date, and her first period drama. It was also her first shot during a global pandemic.
“It was quite overwhelming, the amount of challenges that were thrown our way,” she notes wryly. “But you really create the best stuff when you’re pushed to your limits, and I felt like we really were on this in the best way possible.”
Filmed on location at 1850s recreation town Sovereign Hill, just outside the regional Victorian city of Ballarat, the four-part series had to adapt to rolling restrictions over a month of full-on six-day weeks. Not least the ‘ring of steel’ erected around the state’s capital. “We had to move as one big bubble into Ballarat with no one coming in or out, which was very expensive for the production,” Chen reveals. “The great thing about the arts industry is that we are able to pivot and adapt really well and find silver linings.”
That included more time to work on the screenplays with lead writer Peter Cox, script editor Keith Thompson, coordinator Jean Tong and the cast, including dashing leading man Yoson An. The Chinese-born Kiwi actor (who also appears in the adaptation of New Zealand author Eleanor Catton’s Gold Rush novel The Luminaries) plays central character Leung Wei Shing.
“I love working with scripts, and I love doing prep, and it was almost this blessing,” Chen says of the extra set-up time the crisis allowed. “I’m a believer in over-preparing so I can be spontaneous in the moment. It’s this weird contradiction, but that’s the model I go by.”
Nothing was going to dampen her excitement at depicting the under-explored contribution of Asian immigrants to Australian history during a tumultuous time that has fascinated Chen since school. “When I first heard that SBS were developing the show, I was personally so desperate to see an Asian–Australian direct it,” she recalls. “It didn’t even have to be me. I just wanted it to be someone who could bring that level of personal authenticity that this era deserves and needs.”
Landing the gig was a dream, challenges or not, with filming on location in dirt-strewn camps amidst thick gum trees only increasing that sense of authenticity. “When you say the word Australia, you think about landscape and the vastness of it, and I really wanted to capture the feeling that these new migrants would have felt at the time,” Chen says. “The world is enormous. Anything is possible. This landscape is beautiful, but it’s also harsh and dangerous. It’s about harnessing that dichotomy, with the dust and heat and the tiny details of dirt on your hands.”
Dirt was important in getting the right look for New Gold Mountain, particularly for costume designer Cappi Ireland (Lion, The Dry). “I watched all these westerns and it would aggravate me when their costumes are too clean, especially in that time, and I just wanted them to be as dirty as possible,” Chen says of their brainstorming. They worked really hard on An’s attire. “We were talking about the cowboy hat, and then we just knew Shing should wear that. As soon as that fell into place, it was the first goal post into the ground of what this show is, when you see a confident, handsome Chinese man in an Akubra. Suddenly I’m allowed to think about the history of this country in a slightly different way.”
The director stumbled across some interesting historical comments made by white women who married Chinese miners. Apparently some of these women favoured them over European settlers because, Chen quotes, “‘Well, at least they bathe.’ Something about that really stuck with me. I wanted to be able to smell [these characters] just by looking at them.”
The involvement of First Nations characters is another rich seam in New Gold Mountain’s story. Leonie Whyman is particularly brilliant as Hattie, a young massacre survivor who has made her own way in these hazardous parts by forging tenuous alliances with both European and Chinese settlers. “It’s impossible to tell the story of Chinese–Australians without intertwining into other cultures and races,” Chen says. “That is the fabric of Australia. The Chinese–Indigenous relationship was something that the writers really wanted to reflect. What I completely loved about it was that it’s fraught. The Chinese, along with the Europeans, were settlers in this country as well. The responsibilities that come with that is something we’re really only starting to recognise and talk about.”
New Gold Mountain’s overlapping stories, complex histories and simmering conflicts are what makes the show shine. And those tensions are alive within the Chinese community depicted too, with the use of language at its heart. English is a source of tension between Shing and his brother, played by Sam Wang, that plays into their fractured relationship. It’s also a weapon deployed by Shing in his tussle with Cheung Lei, a ruthless businesswoman played by Mabel Li. “They use English as a way of trying to one-up each other in their power play.”
Born in Taiwan, Chen knew from the outset that she wanted audiences to hear as much Cantonese as possible. “As an immigrant, when I think about speaking to my parents, you speak in your native tongue, but you might have scattered words of English. And we don’t often see that portrayed on Australian screens.”
New Gold Mountain premieres on SBS and SBS On Demand at 9.30pm, Wednesday 13 October. See the four-part series on Wednesday and Thursday nights over two big weeks, screening 13 October, 14 October, 20 October and 21 October.
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