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

The film Tricks on the Dead: The Story of the Chinese labour Corps in WWI is a beautiful mixture between hard facts and flowing sentiment invoking just the right emotions for the film to achieve its goal of making a forgotten story memorable.  

This Canadian docudrama details the journey of 140,000 Chinese labourers smuggled from China, through Canada and to the front lines of World War I under the allied forces. Aiming to discover this crucial yet forgotten labour corps, the film expertly mixes reenactment and historian interviews to provide both the personal memoirs and the political context. 

Perhaps the most successful is the shadowing of Zhang Yan, the Chinese history student trying to piece together the story and provide some kind of closure to the labourers’ descendants. His passion based on his personal connection to rural China ties the whole film together and solidifies the significance of the corps’ sacrifice in the present day.

VIFF’s Canadian line-up continues to impress with the sheer quality and magnitude of truly cinematic productions — Tricks on the Dead is no exception. Beyond the basic recitation of memoirs in voice over is an overpowering cinematic language. Slow motion, wide landscapes and picturesque close-ups freeze the past into unforgettable imagery that parallels with the real archival photos of the corps’ journey. Breathtaking visuals were perhaps the most effective vector for emotional engagement in the film.  

Although the production itself gives a sense of borderlessness, the film’s content very much focuses on the physical borders of the trenches. There is also a cultural divide in the Chineses' inability to communicate with their British officers or their Canadian doctors that existed in that period. Specifically, it brings forth the question of the Asian identity in North America. Sandwiched between the strong Chinese and European imagery, the Canadian identity was largely unexplored in the film since the labour corps sped right through Canada with no contact to the land or people. In this sense, Canada seemed only to be a temporary passing point. Although some Chinese people created permanent homes here as Canadian citizens, many others due to the head tax found that their welcome in Canada was anything but long-term. 

This shows the distance that Canada as a nation has come in creating a film that celebrates the Asian identity overseas. Instead of isolating Asians in stereotypical, Far-East, exotic and mysterious ancient histories, films such as Tricks on the Dead include the Asian identity in international history depicting Asians as a contributors to global affairs. Tricks on the Dead contributes to a more holistic and inclusive historical point of view as well as a more globally collaborative film effort.

Tricks on the Dead: The Story of the Chinese Labour Corps in WWI won the Must-see BC Audience Award at VIFF 2015 and will air on OMNI Television in Vancouver and CCTV-10 in China in the near future.