After reading many reviews on Tricks on the Dead, all of which were positive, we were keen to watch the first UK screening of this docudrama. What wasn’t clear in any of the publicity was that the screening had been organised by the Meridian Society, so we’d like to both thank and congratulate the Meridian Society for their efforts.
Tricks on the Dead is the first feature length examination of the use of Chinese labour in the Great War from an international perspective. In structure it takes three strands, each of which is presented in a particular style.
- Through re-enactments that rely on the diaries of labourers and officers, and to a lesser extent official records, we are presented with the story through personal narratives. Voiceover narration of diary entries are used to add detail and a real sense of hearing the voices of those men.
- Through a fly-on-the-wall documentary style we follow the efforts of postgraduate student, Zhang Yan, from Shandong University as he seeks to trace descendants of labourers back in China, and then his efforts to fulfil his promise to one family to locate the grave of their ancestor.
- Through on-screen contributions by Gregory James (author of the encyclopaedic The Chinese Labour Corps 1916-1920) and Professor Xu Guoqi (author of Strangers on the Western Front and China and the Great War) we are provided with analysis of the events from genuine experts in the field.
Producer and Director Jordan Paterson achieves something quite remarkable in the way these three elements are woven together into the final product. The cinematography of the re-enactments is compelling and through them we are provided with the historical timeline; taken back and forth through the clever use of historical photographs, film footage and narration, seamlessly linking the three elements together. The end result is a powerful presentation of the story which is far greater than the sum of its parts.
That Tricks on the Dead is a superb piece of storytelling is evidenced by the various international awards it has received. But beyond artistic merit and very high production values there is perhaps an even more impressive achievement in Tricks on the Dead, and that is to present contested history in such a way that the both Western and Chinese perspectives are respected and accommodated. To this end the contributions of Gregory James and Xu Guoqi are so cleverly interwoven that we are left with a single narrative.
The cohesive and internally consistent presentation is, however, uncomfortable viewing at times, from a Belgian farmer’s musings on which nationalities were in Belgium during the war in which he concludes there were never any Chinese, to the photograph of a public flogging of a member of the Chinese Labour Corps at William Head. The prejudicial views of the British towards the Chinese are presented without pulling any punches, but contained by giving voice to the more enlightened attitudes of some officers.
Bravo Tricks on the Dead, Bravo!
Trick on the Dead will be screened as part of A Good Reputation Endures Forever exhibition at Durham University’s Oriental Museum, and we are planning a number of screenings across the UK over the coming year.