Iron Road (2008)




Director:     David Wu. 

Starring:     Betty Sun (Little Tiger), Luke Macfarlane (James Nichol), Sam Neill (Alfred Nichol), Tony Leung Ka Fai (Bookman), Kenneth Mitchell (Edgar), Peter O'Toole (Relic), Ian Tracey (Controller), Gao Yun Xiang (Wang Ma), Serge Houde (George Grant), Charlotte Sullivan (Melanie Grant), Zhang Nai Hua (Di Hong), Ningyu Zhao (Lei Mo), Jiang Boning (Powder), Lisa Bunting (Kathryn Nichol), Jeffrey Fisher (Foreman), Charmaine Grey (Frances Grant), Barry Pearson (Yale Doctor).

TV mini-series

a poor Chinese woman disguises herself as a boy and works for the railroad crew in the Rocky Mountains to find out what happened to her long-lost father



Spoiler Warning:


Part One. 

Hell's Gate, British Columbia, Canada, 1881.  Men are working on a railway line.  A train comes in and the supervisors tell the men to hurry up and unload the train now.  George Grant the banker wants to know from Alfred Nichol about the progress of the railroad.  Alfred says they had a few setbacks, but none of them major.  George is not happy about the railroad using Chinamen and protests to Alfred, but Alfred comes back and says he's so pleased with the Chinamen that he has put in a contract for 2,000 more Chinese railway workers.  And "You get two for the price of one Irishman, and they pay for their own food and camp."  

Alfred is under a lot of pressure to finish the railway and on time too.  Otherwise he could lose the money he has invested in the railway. 

Victoria, British Columbia.  Two weeks later.  There is a big ball taking place and young James Nichol flirts with the pretty young ladies.  Melanie Grant goes to an empty room and then pulls James into the room.  They kiss.  They are interrupted by George Grant and his wife who are leaving the ball now.  James and Melanie quickly come out of the room for the goodbyes. 

Alfred is saying to his staff that the only way they are going to get back on schedule on the building of the railway is to get those Chinamen over here.  James comes up to tell him that the Grants are ready to leave.  Dad sees that his son looks a bit disheveled and asks James if he is trying to be an embarrassment to his father?  The son says he could impress his father if dad would just give him half a chance.  So, dad says he will send James over to China to speed up the delivery of those Chinamen.  The journey to China will take four weeks and that only gives James one week to check on the Chinamen and get them going.  At the end of five weeks, the Chinese New Year will be starting.  Furthermore, James is to contact dad's agent in China, a Mr. Lionel Relic. 

Hong Kong, four weeks later.  A young Chinese woman is selling fireworks for the New Year's celebration coming up.  Her name is Little Tiger.  Someone throws lit firecrackers into Little Tiger's stand of firecrackers and quite a bit of the fireworks go off.  Little Tiger is disgusted at the damage, but she still wishes in English to a western nun to have a Happy New Year. 

James is now in Hong Kong and looking for a particular address, but he's having a hard time finding anyone who speaks English.  Little Tiger sees the Canadian billboard advertising for Chinese workers on the railway.  She stares at some thugs working for the local gang lord, Lei Mo, beating up a guy who has taken too long in paying his gambling debts.  One of the thugs asks Little Tiger what is she looking at?  She better leave or he will give her what he gave to the debtor.  Little Tiger kicks and knocks down the thug and then she runs away.  She goes to the fireworks factory. 

James finds the offices of Lionel Relic, but for three day he cannot find the man in his office.  

Little Tiger at the fireworks factory, sees the thugs come looking for her in the factory.  She sneaks out of the place. 

Little Tiger goes over to see Mr. Relic.  She does the laundry for Relic. Relic thinks that Little Tiger is a boy, partly because she dresses like a boy and she carries herself as physically and mentally tough as a boy.  James now reaches Relic's dwelling.  Little Tiger has just asked Relic for her English lesson when James knocks on the door.   Relic has Little Tiger go to the door and tell James that Mr. Relic is very, very sick.  She does so and then closes the door in James' face.  James gets very angry and kicks the door.  He shouts:  "Is he dead?!  Because if he isn't, my father wants to know why he hasn't put 2,000 damn Chinamen on a boat to Victoria!"

James starts walking away, but now Little Tiger comes out asking if Mr. James Nichols wants Chinese workers?  Yes, he does.  So Little Tiger says she will work for Mr. Nichols and help him get the workers he needs. She says her name is Xiao-Hu, which means Little Tiger.  James doesn't want to deal with her saying that the boy is probably 15 years old and has too small of a body.  Now Relic shows up to speak with James.  James says Relic is 200 men short of the 2,000 men needed.  Relic says then they will round up the other 200 in a jiffy.  The old man asks for ten pounds to hold him over, but James says he will given him no advance from Relic's final payment that he holds in his hand until Relic gets all 2,000 Chinese workers on the boat.  James now leaves. 

Little Tiger goes to her place and lays down on her bedding to sleep.  She looks at her fortune that tells her her luck is about to change.

James is in his hotel room when he hears a commotion outside.  He runs outside and sees Relic and a large number of Chinese men.  Relic says these are the last 100 men James needs.  James looks over the men and is dissatisfied.  He say he sees better and stronger men everyday on the streets of Hong Kong.  He demands the Chinese aide tell the men to go away.  But when the aide tells the men, James starts a regular riot.  James fires his pistol over his head and tells the men in English that they are to leave now.  The men leave, but they curse James as they go. 

James goes to the fireworks factory to get good men, but that runs him afoul of Lei Mo the local gangster.  He has to beat a hasty retreat out of the building.  Little Tiger comes to him saying she can get Mr. James a hundred men.  And she knows how to use black powder to create explosions.  James says he will giver her a shilling for each man she brings.  Little Tigers says she will show James and hurries off.  She goes back to the fireworks factory and whispers to the men about going to Gold Mountain to make one Canadian dollar a day. 

James and Relic wait for the one hundred men impatiently.  Little Tiger shows up with the needed men.  She gloats a little at showing the businessmen what she can do.  She still wants to go with the others, but James repeats that the boy is still too puny.  The situation changes, however, when Lei Mo and his gang shows up.  Relic and all the potential workers run away, leaving James and Little Tiger to fend for themselves.  A fight breaks out and James manages to shoot Lei Mo in the foot.  James starts fighting the thugs with the help of the kicks of Little Tiger and the use of her knife.  Little Tiger grabs up his pistol and throws it to James.  He shoots one of the men and makes others duck to evade the bullets.  Little Tiger lights a stick of dynamite and throws it near Lei Mo.  Now the thugs really back up, giving James and Little Tiger some time to escape.  They start running down the streets of Hong Kong.  They run to Mr. Relic's place and he lets them in.

The thugs asks a street vendor which way a white man and a Chinese boy went.  The vendor says first door on the right.  The thugs bust into the place but can't find anyone as they are all hiding. The thugs leave. 

Little Tiger takes James and Relic to a fantastic place to get workers.  It's a section of Hong Kong where Little Tiger and her mother used to live thirteen years ago.  Little Tiger speaks to the men of the section and gets her 100 men. 

Chinese New Year's Eve, 1882.  James sends a telegraph to his father. 

In the morning, the workers show up and Little Tiger says Mr. James must take her too.  He pays her money for 99 men, but still rejects Little Tiger as a worker. She follows James around continually asking him to take her.  They go to the office of Relic, where they find his bloody, dead body.  It's only now that James says that Little Tiger is going with him. 

Victoria, British Columbia.  Alfred Nichols is about to start searching for Canadian workers when the telegram arrives that the 2,000 workers are about to board for Canada. 

The workers board the ship.  They all have to stay in the cargo hold.  They land and are given a bad reception by Canadians who don't want them here.  Then they go through immigration.  Melanie Grant is there to greet James.  James is happy to see her, but he has to transfer his workers to a river boat.  Melanie asks him to at least stay for lunch, and James agrees.  Little Tiger watches their interaction and seems a bit envious. 

Now the workers are on the train.  As they travel they see many graves along the way where the dead Chinese workers have been buried.  That's a bit sobering. 

When the new workers arrive Alfred and James are there to meet them.  Alfred tells supervisor Ed to take the Chinese to the Chinamen's camp before dark. 

Little Tiger washes dishes to make her wages.  After her work, she goes down the railway to the cemetery with the Chinese grave markers.  She does not find her father in the cemetery. 

Digging a tunnel through a mountain, a cave-in occurs. Many people are badly hurt.  The dead bodies are laid down on the tracks.  They need someone to lay some dynamite in the tunnel to blast out the debris inside.  Little Tiger volunteers to do the job and will earn an extra five dollars.  This way Little Tiger gets to see James again and she'll get some money.

Little Tiger is so small that she can get through spaces the men could never get through.  She sets the dynamite in an ideal place, then she lays the fuse wire down as she backs out of the tunnel.  The engineer lights the fuse.  Somewhere along the fuse line water drops on the line and the fuse is stopped.  So for another five dollars, Little Tiger will go back into the tunnel and relight the fuse.  Suddenly the fuse relights and the dynamite is about to blow out the rocks from the tunnel entrance.  Little Tiger had a hard time getting out of the tunnel, so James rushed up to the entrance to help his friend get out of the opening/exit. The explosion clears out the rocks from the cave in.    

James and Little Tiger go over to  a pond and a naked James jumps into the water.  As he swims back he pulls Little Tiger into the pond.  It's then that James realizes that the boy can't swim so he keeps pushing Little Tiger back to the rocks.

James has dinner with his father at the table in a railway car.  Dad tells his son that if they can't lay enough track to get to Scuzzy Creek in sixty days, the bank will take all his money.  He will be personally bankrupt.  Edgar the engineer comes in with a plan to shorten the route and buy the company more time to get to Scuzzy Creek.  This will, however, involve more blasting through mountains. 

One of the Chinese supervisors comes to give Little Tiger her extra money.  He then tells her not to follow after the boss's son like a pet dog.  Remember that only Chinese will take care of the Chinese.  Management will use Little Tiger up and then spit on his grave. 

Chinese dynamiters are let down by ropes on pulleys to place dynamite sticks in holes on the rock cliff to blow away part of the mountain they are working on.  Little Tiger sees the men working and she wants to do the job because they get paid two dollars a day instead of one.  Little Tiger wants that extra money.  She notices that the fuses are too short because now the weather is hot and dry.  She tells Edgar they are not suitable, but Edgar says they're fine. 

Little Tiger speaks to the supervisor and asks to be put on the dynamite crew.  The supervisor says Little Tiger should first learn to become a first-rate tea boy. 

Little Tiger is attacked in her tent by a gang member who knows Little Tiger from several confrontations with him.   He wants to slit Little Tiger's throat but Little Tiger grabs the man private parts and the thug starts shouting out in pain.  Little Tiger kicks the man out of her tent.  Then she hits him with a metal dinner plate.  The fight is broken up and the thug is warned by the supervisor that next time he will let Little Tiger cut off his balls. 

James sees Little Tiger walk passed his railway car.  He goes down to the water and sits by her.  They talk about the stars in the sky. 

An Irishman with the train is up to no good.  He asks his Chinese aide who is this boy that James hangs around with?  The aide say the lad is just a tea boy.  The bag guy says:  "Well, he's too smart by half."  Edgar comes into the hut and interrupts the two bad guys. 

Little Tiger touches James' hand and says she thinks about him all the time and there's something she has to tell him.  James, afraid of a homosexual encounter, jumps up and away from Little Tiger.  She now tells James that she's a girl., and now James is really confused. 


Part Two.

James tells Little Tiger that there are over 2,000 men here.  She will have to go because this is no place for a girl.  She tells him about all the terrible situations she has endured and how she always survived them.  She begs him not to make her go home where she has no one there she knows.  James, still confused, walks away from Little Tiger. 

In the morning James tells Little Tiger that she can't stay her.  She must go back to Yale, northeast of Vancouver, before anyone else finds out.  Little Tiger again pleads that she doesn't want to go back to China.  James tells her that he doesn't want her to go either.  So Little Tiger deliberately assumes that she can stay with the railway.  James tells her to wait.  He wants to clear up what he said, but Little Tiger deliberately runs away from him so James can't say anything more at this moment. 

Little Tiger watches as her Chinese friend repels down the mountains side.  He lights the fuse and the men start pulling the friend up.  The dynamite goes off and the friend is wounded in the back .  And he can't hear anything.  When Edgar comes around, Little Tiger says she told him that those fuses were just too short.   

Little Tiger asks another friend where are three different men in the camp that are on the list of workers?  The friend insists that all these men are dead, and that's that.  And now he wants Little Tiger to never mention their names again.  Something's wrong here.  Who are these men and why are they so scary?

The Chinese supervisor goes into his cabin to sleep.  He suddenly realizes that someone has stolen all his money.  The supervisor with a knife in his hand runs out his front door looking for the thief or thieves.  The man who tried to kill Little Tiger now runs into Little Tiger again and he tells Little Tiger to get out of his way or he will kill the wimp.  Little Tiger says the man's name and tells him it won't be so easy to kill him, because now he doesn't have the protection of Lei Mo and his goons.  The man comes toward Little Tiger who throws some water in his face and kicks him away from her.  The man  starts to go toward Little Tiger again, but the Chinese supervisor grabs him.  He tells Little Tiger to go back to her tent.  She goes. 

Now the supervisor tells the man that he and Lei Mo and his thugs killed his wife and little girl.  The goon hits the supervisor and then runs away.  The supervisor catches him.  There is a big fight and the goon knocks the supervisor out.  He then drags the supervisor over to the edge of the mountain cliff.  As the goon drags him past one of the posts, the supervisor's arm gets stuck around it.  As the goon starts to pull harder, the supervisor awakens and kicks the goon off the side of the cliff.  The man hits the rocks way below him. 

In the morning a Chinese man discovers the body and screams out about it to everyone.  Edgar comes and sees the body on the rocks.  He then tells everyone to get busy working.  So the Chinese throw down the picks and shovels and refuse to work.  Edgar asks the Chinese supervisor what's going on?  The supervisor says the body must come up or no one will work. 

Dad the boss is madder than hell about the work stoppage.  He tells James to tell the Chinese that if they do not work, all food and supplies to them will be cut-off.  So James has to go to the Chinese and get them back to work.

Little Tiger now volunteers to go down with the ropes and bring the dead body back to the top of the cliff.  James tells her thank you. 

Little Tiger goes down the mountain cliff. She puts the wooden seat under that man and yells to hoist his body up.  Up it goes.  Now Little Tiger comes up in a separate chair.  On her way up she lights a fuse on a stick of dynamite.  She yells fire in the hold and everyone but the pulley workers run for cover.   The dynamite blows out part of the cliff side.  Little Tiger asks James if now she can stay for sure?  James smiles and pats her on the arm.  The bad white guy tells the Chinese supervisor that this kid is trouble, so keep an eye on him. 

Dad tells James that he's going to Yale to get a supplemental loan from George Grant.  He also tells James to keep the Chinamen working. 

James and Little Tiger take a walk to the Chinese cemetery.  She tells James about her search for her father.  On the way back he holds hands with Little Tiger. 

In the railway car James and Little Tiger kiss.  He lays her down on the bed and really starts kissing her.  She will not let him go all the way. She lets down her hair.

Little Tiger talks about wanting to be rich.  When she walks back to the camp in the dark, the supervisor tells her that he has been looking for her for two hours.  He tells her not to wander around at night. 

The next day the Chinese supervisor tells Little Tiger that now he must go help with the unloading of supplies from the train. 

Alfred Nichol returns to his train. George Grant is with him.  And, surprise, Melanie has also come along on the trip.  Little Tiger sees this and knocks a pail over in protest. 

James has to take Melanie on a tour of the area.  Melanie can sense that he is keeping his distance from her and this upsets her.  Melanie crying says they will go back now, if it's not too much trouble for James. 

Now Alfred show George around the area. James goes to check on Little Tiger, who now is very mad at James because of the other woman.  She asks if the other woman is his wife?  James doesn't have a wife.  Is the woman his almost-wife?  No.  He says Melanie doesn't matter to him. 

Little Tiger starts ignoring James. 

The bad white guy and Edgar now insist that Little Tiger be put on the dynamite crew.  They think she might have overheard their conversations that would implicate them as regular thieves. 

Little Tiger goes for another walk.  She sits down by the pond. 

Melanie and her father have dinner with Alfred and James, but Melanie feels so bad about the break-up that she excuses herself from the dinner.  James chases after her.  She asks him:  "What did I do to deserve to be treated so shabbily?"  James says it's not her, but him.  He's changed.  George Grant hears some of their conversation and he threatens to sue James for breach of promise.  Melanie tells him:  "Father, don't you dare!"  James says he didn't promise his daughter anything.  So father says, if that's the case, then he didn't promise James' father anything either. 

James' father asks his son if he does these things to spite him?  James says no, and they don't need another loan.  They can finish on time.  When they go back to the railway car, Alfred has a heart attack or something similar.  James cries out for help.  The train now speeds to Yale to get help for Alfred Nichol.  James goes with him. 

Now the supervisor puts Little Tiger on the dynamite crew. 

The doctor examines Alfred and tells his son that Alfred is one tough bird. 

Little Tiger and her friend walk to the Chinese cemetery.  She reads off the names on the grave markers for her friend who can't read.  Then it occurs to her that those three men she was looking for are right here in the cemetery. 

Little Tiger goes not to James but to Edgar to tell him of her suspicions of management wrongdoing.  Edgar says well that's terrible.  He also tells Little Tiger to tell no one else in order to give him more time to check on the matter. 

Edgar and the bad white guy are both thieves, along with their partner the Chinese supervisor.  The white men want the supervisor to kill Little Tiger before she can tell anyone else about what she found out.  They tell the supervisor that if they are discovered the two white men will spend some time in prison, but the yellow man will hang.  So the supervisor cuts some of the ropes on Little Tiger's chair used by the dynamite crew. 

Alfred and James return.  James tells Little Tiger that Melanie is gone and he wants to be with Little Tiger.  She tells him that he cannot be a part of her world, nor can she be part of James' world.  The two worlds are just to different.

Edgar tells James they have run into harder rock that will take two weeks to be chipped out.  James is disgusted at the news. 

The controller, the bad Irish man, goes through Little Tiger's things and takes her small box with him.  Little Tiger and her friend start working on the mountain cliff side.

The controller tells the supervisor that Little Tiger is not a boy, but a girl.  He throws the box at the supervisor's feet.  He picks up the family portrait and realizes that Little Tiger is his daughter.  He starts crying.  The supervisor starts to choke the controller.  He then runs toward the cliff side.  James runs after him.  Just as they reach the cliff, Little Tiger has lit the fuses and is being brought up.  But then the ropes break loose and Little Tiger is left suspended  from the chair.   Her father shouts out her real name and climbs down to save her and he does but one of the delayed fuses now sparks up again and blows father off the chair and ropes, dropping him to the hard rocks below. 

Now Little Tiger demands to be let down to where the supervisor is.  He is still alive and Little Tiger yells at him, is he the man who killed her father?  The supervisor says he didn't even recognize his own daughter.  They had told him that his wife and child had been killed.  He asks her to send him back home. He dies.  Little Tiger screams and cries. 

Edgar tries to escape but is surrounded by angry Chinamen.

Little Tiger has her father's body burned. 

And now she's going to leave the railway.  She tells her friends she has to leave.   She tells James the same thing.  He wants to go with her, but she again tells him that they cannot change the world.  In their talking James says the railway has hit a big obstacle.  They can't use dynamite to knock out all the hard rock they have found in the tunnel.  Little Tiger takes a look at the rock. 

Little Tiger blasts the hard rock out of the tunnel.  The explosion works so well that the men can see the other end of the tunnel now opened.  James tells Little Tiger thanks. 

Now James and Little Tiger say goodbye to one another.  She gets on the train and leaves with it. 

"It is estimated that three Chinese workers died for every mile of track they laid.  Once the railroad was completed, the Canadian government imposed a Head Tax on all immigration from China.  17 million dollars was collected from this tax, more than it cost to build the entire railroad.  In 2006, the government finally apologized to Chinese-Canadians who had paid the tax.  This film is dedicated to the memory of those who lost their lives building the railroad."


Good film with lots of action in it.  It deals with the Chinese workers on the project to finish a transcontinental railway across Canada.  The boss sends his son to China to make sure that the railway gets it's 2,000 new Chinese workers.  The son runs into a lot of problems in China with lots of danger and action.  A young woman, named Little Tiger, poses as a boy in order to get work and she continues her charade to get a job with the new railway crew.  She makes herself invaluable to the son, so he finally decides to take her (him) to Canada.  Once in Canada, her problems continue and she and everyone else is met with one challenge after another.  She finally reveals her true identity to James, who falls in love with her.  And she tells James that she is looking for her father who earlier came to Canada.  A love story develops and that brings many problems too. 

With all the challenges faced by the railway crew and the bosses, you get some feeling of how difficult it was to build a railway across or through mountains and over rivers and streams in Canada.  The film will keep your interest.  Chinese actress Betty Sun (as Little Tiger) is very good. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.




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