Robin Greenberg on The Free China Junk

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Robin Greenberg’s buoyant documentary charts the personal journey of five young men in a rickety junk.

If you had never sailed a boat before, you probably wouldn’t jump on a leaky old junk and sail across the Pacific. Especially in pre-GPS days and during typhoon season. However, as Robin Greenberg’s entertaining documentary reveals, that’s precisely what happened to five Taiwanese lads and an American tagalong back in 1955. Although the Cold War formed a backdrop to the story (evident in the vessel’s name, the “Free China Junk”), the film is more interested in the men themselves. Greenberg is well served in this regard: the men are wonderfully compelling storytellers and their stories form the backbone of the film. The Free China Junk also includes some exceptional footage taken by the American, the then Vice-Counsel to Taiwan Calvin Mehlert, during the voyage. Greenberg’s light touch and the men themselves create an enjoyable romp in reliving the makeshift crew’s journey across the Pacific Ocean.

Greenberg came upon idea for the documentary while making a film about Loo-chi Hu (also known as Huloo). The resulting film, Huloo, screened at the 2008 New Zealand International Film Festival. Greenberg had been long-term friends with Huloo, following their collaboration on a tai-chi video in the early 1990s. “He started revealing aspects of his life and he showed me black and white footage of the Free China Junk—it was from a 1957 US television program,” Greenberg recalls. “That always sparked my interest in the story and the depth of his diverse life.”

She ended up meeting the other shipmates when she was in the United States (Huloo lives in New Zealand), and from there the film about the men’s voyage took shape. In the face of competition to tell their story first, Greenberg was asked to make the documentary by the men themselves. “I felt some responsibility around that. I had a long connection with Huloo and I think because of that they embraced me like a surrogate daughter.”

A turning point, however, was meeting Mehlert and seeing his footage. “When I was first researching for Huloo, Huloo suggested I meet his friend Paul [Chow] down in Los Angeles. I made a special trip to do that. When Paul heard I was based in San Francisco for a year, he said ‘you’ve got to meet the other guys’. In my meeting with Reno [Chen] and Calvin, they cooked this huge dinner for me, and we had this wonderful evening, and then they said ‘let’s have a look at some of this footage together’, and then I was blown away. I had never known that the footage was in colour, so to me that was the moment. I was falling in love with these great guys and I thought the footage was stunning.”

Another challenge faced by Greenberg was the lack of explicit conflict in the story—the narrative trope which seems to drive most documentary filmmaking. Greenberg admits “I was aware of that point you make, but at the same time, there are enough elements of surprise in terms of how the story develops, and conflict does exist in the sense you have got six young guys trapped in a very narrow space of sixteen feet by eighty feet for four months, and so it intrigued me as to how they dealt with that. There were various points of views and egos jostling at various points. There were different challenges—six individuals with very distinct personalities—and to keep them all developing as characters and to keep them as all unique. It was like having six leads. It was fun and challenging to balance, to make sure they all got their voices heard.” Additionally, Greenberg says the men led such interesting lives subsequently, and that “it was tricky because we felt we had to end with the arrival at San Francisco, but it could have kept going.”

Greenberg was also attracted to the inspirational nature of the trip, and the zany cultural clashes that existed between Mehlert and the others (for example in a scene about how the men should look upon arrival). “I really liked the interplay of stories. I think they’re still relevant today. There’s a lot of humour in the differences.” The fact that the men had no sailing experience whatsoever (they were fishermen, but had little idea of sail boats) only contributed to the craziness of the project. Greenberg confesses that if the men did it again, “I’d go with them. Because the post-production became very prolonged for a number of reasons, I often, countless times, dreamed I was on that boat.”

The subtext to the voyage was the Cold War. While the men were told to avoid politics by their mothers, the journey became emblematic of the predicament Taiwan was in post-Chinese Civil War. In embarking on their journey, they were able to receive a free boat due to their “Free China” moniker—a somewhat ironic name given Taiwan’s martial law at the time. They were also able to get help by having an American Vice-Counsel on board. “I don’t think this story could happen necessarily again,” Greenberg contemplates. “I’m not a historian, and the way I wanted to tell the story is what they wanted to show. For them, the politics was the backdrop, rather than the motivating factor, but we can’t deny that this story couldn’t have happened at a different time.”

The documentary is lent extra poignancy by the passing of two of the storytellers shortly after being filmed: Reno Chen and Marco Chung, both who died in 2007. “That was before we could complete either Huloo or The Free China Junk. I know their families are so grateful that we have this footage and some of their stories captured.” Greenberg also points out that she felt an extra obligation to tell their story as a result. “The pressure started to build for me, realising the fragility of life. My style of filmmaking is different to a lot of other documentary makers, in that it’s them telling their story. If I’ve been successful, they’re happy with it. I’m not doing it for money clearly. And then it became important for me to finish it while the rest of them were still alive. No one else would know it [the film] got anything wrong, but I wouldn’t know if I got it right. It was really rewarding to get thumbs up. Paul Chow, who is in essence the lead, because he initiated the journey, told me it was as if ‘they were all sitting in the room talking about it’ when he watched it.”

Greenberg has made documentaries about Maori weaving (Tu Tangata: Weaving for the People, 2000) and waka (He Waka Hono Tangata, 2005), and now Taiwanese tai-chi masters and fishermen. “I just feel naturally pulled to projects I get involved in, and I don’t really question that. It’s more a reality check as to the practicalities of how I’m living and surviving. But I never question the projects—the projects choose me if that makes sense. And there’s a close connection that you develop with the people the film’s about, and I don’t feel like an outsider. I feel like if I’m doing my job like I want to, then I’m actually putting myself into the shoes of my characters and enabled them to be filmmakers.” Through this, the film’s success lies in the space Greenberg allows the men and their history—their tales capturing a real sense of adventure while simultaneously telling the story of a fascinating geopolitical climate.

‘The Free China Junk’ screens in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, and Dunedin at the New Zealand International Film Festival. For dates, programme details, and screenings in other regions, please visit nzff.co.nz.

1 Comment

  1. Kudos and heartfelt appreciation to director and producer Robin Greenberg for bringing the story of the Free China’s transpacific voyage to life in “The Free China Junk” film.

    My late father was one of the Free China junk crew who is featured in this film.

    I just saw the film for the first time at a family-and-friends screening and came away thoroughly impressed by the warmth, honesty and humor with which Robin has crafted this film. I’ve known of the Free China voyage all my life, but this film provides the most complete and wonderful picture of the voyage.

    The film captures the individual character and voice of my dad and my “uncles” (his fellow crewmates) to provide an inspiring and enjoyable film–a “coming of age” story of adventure, friendship, serendipity and chutzpah which is treasured as part of my family legacy, but also universal in its appeal. The film—like the crew—acknowledges the historical and political context of the times, but never gets bogged down in those details. Rather, the film conveys the spirit, goodwill and “Just Do It” dream and energy which made the voyage possible.

    Film reviewer Brannavan Gnanalingam has written an excellent piece on this film. I hope that many others will have the opportunity to enjoy “The Free China Junk.”

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