I was recently looking for more movies starring Sam Neill, hoping for another gem like Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and I found this TV miniseries about Chinese railroad laborers in 1880s British Columbia. (The real star is Sun Li, though, not Sam Neill.) Apparently based on an opera, Iron Road is a coproduction made under a treaty between China and Canada, and it came out not long after Canada formally apologized for an immigrant tax imposed on Chinese laborers back then. The Chinese didn't just come to America to build our transcontinental railroads; they went to Canada as well, attracted by the myth of a Gold Mountain where they could become rich.
Sam Neill plays a railroad tycoon deep in debt, and Peter O'Toole has a smallish but significant part as a British agent in China supposed to hire 2,000 Chinese workers to finish the railroad. Unfortunately, he's too drunk and dissolute to get the job done, so the tycoon sends his playboy son to China to round up the workers. There's another son who's supposedly the good, responsible one, so James needs to prove himself to his family. While there, he meets Little Tiger, supposedly a young boy who works at the fireworks factory and does laundry on the side in order to learn English from the Brit. However, to me, it seems obvious from the start that Little Tiger is a woman. She's been living as a boy since her mother died, and she wants desperately to go to "Gold Mountain" to search for her father who disappeared there many years ago. She only has a faded photograph of him, and his face is unclear.
The two-part miniseries follows Little Tiger's quest, and her eventual romance with James. Though there is the requisite scene where James gets naked to swim in the lake while Little Tiger watches, I liked that she didn't get discovered by accident. She actually reveals her identity to James on purpose, keeping her agency. She also investigates mysterious goings on at the Chinese laborer camp, where some of the overseers are conspiring to steal money by misreporting the Chinese men listed in the payroll book.
It's a fascinating look at history, through a fictional dramatic tale. I was happy that they didn't whitewash the cast, and that the director was Chinese too. The romance is bittersweet, since she knows that society will not accept them, but she vows to make her own way in the world after she takes her father's bones back to China.