NZIFF: The Free China Junk
We can rejoice that there was a camera aboard in 1955 when five young Chinese fishermen set off from Taiwan in an old junk intending to cross the Pacific. Their cockiness was astonishing. Though none of them had any prior experience of junks or the open sea, they charmed the notoriously xenophobic government of the day into not only permitting their improbable project, but also into attaching the country’s contentious name – Free China – to the ill-equipped boat. They planned to sail to San Francisco, then haul the boat across the US to participate in a trans-Atlantic yacht race.
US-born New Zealand filmmaker Robin Greenberg first met Loo-Chi Hu, one of these adventurers, in Christchurch in the late 80s by which time he was an internationally respected master mariner and a Tai Chi master. Huloo, her portrait of this deeply charming man, premiered at the Festival in 2008. Her film about the Free China Junk is the fruit of research instigated for the Huloo documentary when she met and interviewed his three surviving fellow crew members. They in turn pointed her to their cine-chronicler, Calvin Mehlert, the young American Vice-Consul who had issued their US visas and asked to join and film the voyage – on vibrant colour stock supplied by the CIA.
The political reverberations of their exploit are implicit in Greenberg’s account, but it’s the personal tales that animate her film. The old sailors speak with the sharp good humour of men who have lived life to the full and can look back with zero sentimentality at their youthful recklessness. Rampant bravado, bristling egos and the absence of team spirit seem to have got them through some harrowing scrapes. The American diplomat blandly espouses rosier recollection, but it’s his footage of lithe, antsy young men scrambling across the ocean that renders their dash for freedom as mythic as the voyage of the Argonauts and as fresh as tomorrow. — NZIFF