New Gold Mountain Director Corrie Chen Talks Revisionist Westerns, The Influence of Wong Kar-wai, and Judgemental Kangaroos in This Interview

New Gold Mountain is one of the most exciting, essential television shows to come out of Australia in 2021. Masterfully directed by Corrie Chen, this four part series unfurls an engaging and powerful narrative, set in the Australian gold rush era from the perspective of the Chinese miners who came to Australia to seek a chance at fortune in an unforgiving land. Woven into the narrative of historical importance is a mysterious murder that envelopes nature and the burgeoning town with its inhabitants all together in a dark manner. Lead by great performances from Yoson An, Mabel Li, Alyssa Sutherland, and Sam Wang, New Gold Mountain is a perfect show to lose yourself within. It launches on SBS on October 13th.

Andrew caught up with Corrie to talk about working on New Gold Mountain during Covid times, the various dialects throughout the show, being influenced by Wong Kar-wai, and the ever-observational Australian wildlife.

Andrew: Did you make this during COVID times?

Corrie: We’re all really proud of it. And the show was delayed from memory at least twice, because of COVID. It was meant to be shooting March last year. And then we thought, oh, maybe we can go in July and then Victoria was then in the hard lockdown of 2020. It’s so funny because at the time, I was like, This is the worst thing that’s ever happened. And now I look back on 2020 really fondly, like Oh, that was just so straightforward, the goalposts were very clear, we just get down to COVID Zero. At the time, Melbourne had the harshest lockdown rules in the world. My understanding is we were the first production to start pre(-production) under the cloud of a lockdown. The challenges were incredibly clear, none of the shops were open, and, I still think back on it, how on earth did our amazing art department and costume and get access to things, especially all those props that they had to source and there’s no travel between regional and Metropolitan, so it’s not like they could just go to an op shop in Geelong where there’s probably a lot more stuff in the metropolitan areas. I know that there was a lot of looking on Gumtree, Facebook marketplace, and resources like that. But it was it was very challenging, and the sort of challenges kept changing every day, as well as the rules were revealing themselves.

Andrew: I can’t even grapple with how difficult it must be to be able to tackle something on this scale, while also dealing with social distancing, and things like that as well.

Let’s talk about the themes of the show as well, because it’s really powerful, and I guess from an Australian perspective, we don’t really get that many Australian TV shows that delve into the revisionist Western theme. For you as a director, what were the difficulties of balancing what audiences would expect from an American Western as to what they would expect from an Australian Western?

Corrie: I knew there was a really fine specific line that we needed to walk because I do think that the Australian frontier Western genre has been on screen really brilliantly, with The Proposition, and I think there’s a wealth of that. But I really entered this through the specificity of the point of view, which is ultimately what excited me about the show, like, oh, here is the chance to put Chinese Australians into the history books of Australian screen. Right? And to really explore essentially the origin story of Chinese Australians. So of course, you know, we watched any Western that we could watch and that was also another great thing about COVID is like, we just had all this time to watch stuff. But then alongside that, I was really desperate to pull aesthetically and tonally and actually probably more specifically, like emotionally from Chinese cinema.

And there were just little elements that we tried to utilise, because obviously the Australian landscape like it’s just like nothing like China, but I watched a lot of early 90s Chinese cinema again, because I guess that was the cinema from that time made a big imprint on me personally. Watching Raise the Red Lantern, and there was suddenly there was one scene when it was just the pop of red umbrella, and it just really caught me and I’m like, that is so brilliantly and passionately Chinese, and I’m like, I just want to put that in the Australian landscape. And that was something that we were able to do in the final episode. And it was just trying to find little visual cues that allowed us to tell the story from the inside, within the confines of Australia.

Andrew: This is a really multicultural story as well, you’re talking about completely different perspectives all at once. How do you balance how to give the prominence of each of these stories and how to respectfully present them each way?

Corrie: We really wanted to capture and reinforce the incredible multi-culturalism that existed at that time, and as I was doing my research, I just thought, wow, the wealth of accents that you would be hearing on the street… because the Australian accent didn’t really exist until the 1900s, even within the white Europeans, it would have been so full of this idea of whatever the ‘other’ is. Dialect was a really big thing in this show in piecing together what the fabric was, and we did a lot of work with our dialect coach, Amy Hume. Also part of that was setting what the Chinese accent should be in this show. Obviously, in reality, the Chinese English accent would have been really heavy and really thick. I was so conscious of that… allowing the audience to immediately other our main protagonists, so kind of really just had to find that balance of still retaining the heritage but have that be empowered.

Firstly, we started with accent. The way I approach my work is to be so immersed in that character’s point of view, I want to be able to know what it would feel like to walk down the street as that person and I think something that I was really able to draw upon is to capture the feeling of being a migrant in this country, it’s like this adventurous ‘anything is possible, the world is enormous’, kind of emotion that propels through you, but at the same time, this landscape is beautiful, but brutal and terrifying, and I could die at any time and the loneliness and think all the contradictions, it’s really using that dichotomy as the fuel.

Andrew: The film that kind of comes to mind when I’m watching this is Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow, which I think is a really wonderful film. That in itself is this presentation of a country in flux, of a country being born into something other than it currently is. And that’s what New Gold Mountain kind of does for me, it’s this clashing of everything going: murders and death, and then there’s changing landscapes, changing newspapers, and things like that. What kind of draws you to that birth of a nation… I hate using that term, because of the film that it is, but it is essentially what we’re talking about here a birth of a whole new nation here. What draws you to that idea and that concept?

Corrie: I sort of see it within the context of Australia, I see it as like this is the birth of multiculturalism; this era. Right. And I guess, for me, in everything I make, and every question that I asked myself in stories every day is: what does it mean to belong in Australia? I came here when I was 10, and so I feel like the duality in my existence will stay with me for the rest of my life. To me the idea of what is my home land? There’s the physical home and the emotional home. Right? But it’s weird, because my emotional home is often… it’s transient, like it’s not Australia, even though I’ve spent the majority of my life here, because I think I do always feel like an outsider in this country. I’m so drawn to storytelling, because it’s such a privilege to… we essentially have this megaphone, right? That is the screen to change perception and change culture. And it’s a responsibility that I don’t take for granted, and that’s why the complications of telling this one tiny facet of the story of the making of Australia I hope that New Gold Mountain is really just dipping its toe into that pool because even you know essentially like we’ve told like a few days of the decades that made that time.

Andrew: You really grapple with that time in a really powerful manner. I want to talk about the cast as well because it’s a really brilliant cast in particular, obviously the lead performance, the person who kind of ties this all together, Yoson An, who I think is just a wonderfully morally ambiguous character in a lot of ways. What was the kind of discussions that you had creating this character for the show?

Corrie: Initially there was quite a bit of trepidation in how bad we can make him, given that he’s a Chinese character and I feel like at the same time I was really conscious of falling into the model minority myth of ‘every Chinese person has to be the best and the brightest’, the the key to it all is just making them so fully rounded and there was also a wealth of Chinese characters on screen that we see how the difference in their opinions on everything. Yoson is yes, absolutely he’s morally ambiguous but he cares so much about his family and his brother in his intelligence and fearlessness in trying to make something of him and his family in a space that is not designed for him and does not welcome him; that aspiration I think everyone can relate to especially in Australia. I think aspiration is a very endearing characteristic. Yoson’s performance, he was able to just always carry scenes like impatient tension like always just bubbling under the surface which makes every scene that he’s in like wildly dynamic and quite alive.

I just feel like I can’t rave enough about the cast because we the kind of timeline and schedule we were working to, this was not the kind of show where we could spend time doing like eight takes to try and really nail the performance like we really had two or three, but the thing is that was all we actually needed, and never left the scene being like ‘I just wish we had more time together’ performance wise they were really able to come in and just slam it. It’s really a mixture of sometimes you just have these shows where every day with all the challenges it just feels like there is something really special happening here, this is the lightning in a bottle and you know it’s a mixture of the costumes carrying a lot of that, just really setting them into that time, into that scene and the sets and the spaces that we, as a team, were able to create for each other to feel really safe to explore.

We had 60 for over 65 speaking casts on this show which I think one of the biggest ever assembled (in Australia), all speaking different languages as well. And it meant that we were able to have a mixture of really established and experienced actors with completely green inexperienced actors or people just coming out of film school, and it just reminded me that again to harness the power of the clash, and that made it so that the experience and the inexperience together it just made it so fertile and dynamic all the time because everyone’s trying to either learn or give back. It’s really illuminated for me like what a way forward.

Andrew: As you were saying, the cast is really wonderful. It’s very easy to get lost in them. Very easy.

Corrie: It was something that I was thinking a lot about going well how are we going to cast all these Cantonese speakers, do they really exist? But, kudos to the casting director Jane Norris, we never felt like we were scraping the bottom of the barrel with casting it was always we had options for every role and they were amazing and there were native Cantonese speakers. It was a really exciting realisation for me that the talent exists, you just really have to do the work and look for it.

Andrew: How do you balance the different languages in the show? It’s wonderfully presented here, especially the way that the Cantonese slips into English and then back into Cantonese again as well I really enjoyed listening to that. But for you as a director, how do you deal with and ensure that all the correct language is getting presented authentically?

Corrie: The language thing was something I was desperate to squeeze in as much Cantonese as I could get away with. English is my second language, and I speak Mandarin, I don’t speak Cantonese, but there are a lot of correlations in the language so I sort of innately understand the DNA of it. The use of language came from character, it wasn’t like ‘let’s randomly make them speak Cantonese’, so with the two brothers the use of English became a small source of tension between them and with Lei (Mabel Li) and Shing (Yoson An), the point in which they switched was often suddenly used as a power play as well between them so you might not be able to pinpoint it exactly, but certainly we comb through those scenes and made sure that it fitted the emotional beat change. When we came out of that, it felt quite natural to blend it into the direction. We did also have a Cantonese coach on set all the time.

I think Cantonese is such a beautiful language. Every time I hear it, I just think of Wong Kar-wai, and so suddenly it’s given me that rhythm, there’s a lyricism to it. Often, when the Cantonese coach would be pointing out something that they didn’t quite pronounce right, it became a little conversation about is it not being pronounced right because certain syllables were being emphasized because of performance or they just didn’t pronounce it right? I find I love those conversations, I think it’s because I I am bilingual so I’m always so aware of the intent behind language. It’s one of those elements that I really feel that anyone from a multilingual family will be able to really enjoy.

Andrew: As you’re saying it is a beautiful language to sit there and listen to and it’s really nice, having watched a lot of in a Cantonese language films it’s kind of refreshing to be able to sit there and watch it on an Australian landscape as well.

Corrie: No, totally. The scene where Shing and Lei are walking through the bush in ep 2, that was one of the first things we shot on day one. There’s a thing in the industry where you kind of say, ‘oh, you should throw out all the rushes from day one’, because they’re generally it’s just people finding their feet and whatever. But that was like the first time on day one of a shoot where you could just sort of feel the set like stop and we’re all just looking at each other going like, ‘whoa, why is this so cool?’ It’s just two people. Exactly as you describe, two Chinese people walking through a very Australian snowgum landscape, speaking another language. There’s just something so unsettling and moving about it.

Andrew: One of the things which I really found fascinating was this kind of undercurrent of a thematic representation of the landscape where there is this motif of different native animals, they’re just kind of watching all of this going on, even in paintings, they’re all just kind of sitting there going, ‘what are you doing on our land? What do you What are you doing? What dangers are you creating here?’ Can you talk about the decision to use that motif?

Corrie: It came out of a conversation where… so the kangaroo thing was something that Peter Cox, our lead writer really wanted to do. And I was having a conversation with him about, what’s the metaphor behind that? Like, what are you actually trying to do with it? Other than that it’s a cool moment. And he said this thing where he was like, ‘I just want to feel like the kangaroo is judging him’. Which I was really captivated by. I personally am a little bit obsessed with native Australian animals, as well. So taking that, and the painting was initially just meant to be a kangaroo, but I’m like, ‘well, the paint is called “The Majesty of the Australian landscape”‘, so it was just using that as an opportunity to really broaden out and in a tongue in cheek way, the unassuming threat of the Australian bush, and the judgment, as Peter says. Like, ‘you shouldn’t be here. None of you should be here.’ And stop taking things from the land without consequences. Because actually, there will be consequences, as we’re now seeing.

Andrew: I really liked it. I thought it was quite powerful. And especially because we don’t get to see that kind of perspective, I guess from an animal’s perspective on screen. As you’re saying, we’re seeing the consequences of that now. And it’s refreshing to see that it goes back hundreds of years.

Can you talk about the writers for this particular show as well? Was there a writers room that was led by Peter, or was it Peter had the script and then you had other people come in and fine tune it?

Corrie: My understanding is SBS went to Goalpost (productions) the producers, and were like, we want to do a show about the Chinese in the gold rush. And it really stemmed out from there. SBS picked Peter and a few other writers and we put together a room, and there were quite a few rooms, as these processes go, and then when I came on board, again, another silver lining of COVID delays, it just meant that there were all these extra drafts and months with the director and the writers, which is so rare in Australian television, and it just meant that I was able to spend time on it as you would a feature, in how much time you had with the scripts and the writers. That collaborative process of having this really tight knit brains trust just meant that everyone was able to come to a really strong agreement on exactly what show it is that we were all making together. And that’s actually easier said than done, because often you get to an edit and you realize you’re fighting with all the stakeholders about your job, like everyone has wildly different tastes and opinions on what it should be. But on this one, I never really felt that and that was… what an amazing gift; but I think partly it was because from the script stage, we were able to have the time to flush out those conversations quite early on.

Andrew: When you when you come onto something like this, which you can set the tone, you can set the style, as opposed to working on something that’s been established like Wentworth (Corrie directed two episodes of Wentworth) for example, how do you tackle those kinds of differences? Obviously they’re completely different shows, but the mood and the themes for one is established and one’s not.

Corrie: In some ways, it’s actually a lot easier when you’re the only director. I went to film school and was able to author a lot of my own stuff, and then I went did a patch of episodic television where it’s about… episodic television, you have to be so succinct, and so clear on the slice of story you’re given in that time and work within the team. And it’s funny, because people really dismiss it, like, ‘oh, it’s just bread and butter stuff’. But I think it is so much harder, in many ways in how to really stand out and execute this chapter that fits into the general tone, but also is your own.

They are both satisfying in very different ways. But certainly, this show, because of the topic matter, and because of my own pre-existing obsession with this era, it just has such a special place and a special meaning for me, so for it to be the first time that I’ve set up and it’s the first time that I’ve been the sole director on something, I kind of just have just threw everything I had into it to the extent that I think I broke my brain. But in the best way possible.

Andrew: Well, it’s all on the screen. And it’s a really brilliant show. So congratulations for everything you’ve done. I hope to see more of you working in this world because I think Australian TV and cinema… effectively I watched this one after the other, I binged it as people say, nowadays, but it felt like this four-hour epic, which was just really brilliant. But it feels like the Australian film industry is craving this kind of show. So hopefully we get to see more of it from you.

Corrie: Thank you. There’s a lot of, in terms of the show, having moral integrity, I really wanted the show to be reaching for something greater than the murder mystery that it was. It’s all of tha, but at the same time, we desperately want it to be entertaining. We desperately want it to be more than just like a soapbox, history lesson.  I think to be able to find the intersection of that, in some way, was part of the challenge. But I do feel proud that we were able to get close to it.

Andrew: As you should be. Well, thank you, Corrie for your time.

Corrie: Thanks Andrew.

Andrew F Peirce

Andrew is passionate about Australian cinema, Australian politics, Australian culture, and Australia in general. Found regularly talking online about Sweet Country, and reminding people to watch Young Adult.

Liked it? Take a second to support The Curb on Patreon
Become a patron at Patreon!