TThe four-part SBS miniseries New Gold Mountain, like other recent neo-westerns including the feature films Goldstone and The Furnace, captures the harsh beauty of Australian land but is more concerned with the consequences of the capitalism to empty it of its resources. These consequences can be personal, political, cultural, social, environmental. The show is purpose also involves revisiting an important historical period from a non-white perspective, focusing on the Chinese community during the Gold Rush of the 1850s.

A text insert at the start of the first episode explains that “Gold Mountain” refers to the California Gold Rush, which dried up before people moved to the “New” below. Created by Peter Cox and directed by Corrie Chen, the show is set in Ballarat in 1857, advantageously using the prefabricated, film-like structures of the Victorian tourist attraction Sovereign Hill to tell a story involving the morally ambiguous Wei Shing (Yoson An ), who is a leader within the Chinese community.

New Gold Mountain is set in Ballarat in 1857, advantageously using the prefabricated film-like structures of the Victorian tourist attraction Sovereign Hill. Photography: SBS

Putting out various one-off fires and tackling challenges that require politician-like maneuvers, Shing’s job is far from easy – and that’s before the body of a murdered Anglo woman is found, threatening to do so. explode an already unstable environment. It is clear from the start that he is a well-articulated man, careful with his words, greeting a policeman early on, noting: “I see your passion for justice has you here a day earlier than you expected.” What the less cultured Cockney cop responds to: “Imagine that’s why they call it a fucking raid, right?”

In upper-class white society, we meet the owner of The Ballarat Times: an upscale Englishwoman named Belle Roberts (Alyssa Sutherland), who approaches Shing to share plans to launch a Chinese publication. Belle is one of many very influential and hardy female figures, including the ruthless and powerful Cheung Lei (Mabel Li) – an intimidating figure in the Chinese community – and the young Indigenous stalker Hattie (Leonie Whyman). It would be interesting to read a historian’s perspective on Indigenous Stalkers, given the consensus that this was a male-dominated role.

A still from the SBS drama series New Gold Mountain
Alyssa Sutherland and Yoson An at New Gold Mountain. Photography: SBS

There is a tension between a playwright’s desire to portray historically neglected characters who are strong and independent characters, while simultaneously acknowledging that they are caught up in the maelstrom and injustices of the time – in this case a extremely misogynistic colonial society under the domination of white males. Jennifer Kent succeeded perfectly in The Nightingale by rendering a searing rage and passion within a fully-dimensional female protagonist, an Irish convict drawn into revenge by a shocking injustice, balancing the dramatic agency with uncompromising social commentary.

New Gold Mountain is a more sanitized take on history: not politically sharp or confrontational, and without much interest in making explicit statements on topics like sexism and racism. Some of the characters were inspired by historical figures but this is not a series that goes for realism per se; the tone is dramatic rather than a class manual. Everything takes place on a scenic, at times almost histrionic level – evident in the amplified style of the performances, Caitlin Yeo’s powerful and heavily used score, and the intensely sculpted visuals of the show.

In the press briefings, Chen discussed the series’ infusion of Asian cinematic sensibility, “drawing on the formalism of Chinese cinema and its symmetrical framing.” Matt Temple’s tantalizing cinematography also contains elements of paintings by Frederick McCubbin that depict human subjects as relatively small against the backdrop of environmental aspects, but not entirely helpless or completely subject to the vagaries of nature.

Yoson An in SBS Drama Series New Gold Mountain
The morally ambiguous Wei Shing (Yoson An) in New Gold Mountain. Photography: SBS

Writers resort to familiar devices to open access to their narrative – most obviously the central MacGuffin, in the form of a murder mystery: an evergreen narrative premise. There are also particular moments of dramatic images that are a bit bland, or at least a bit rote, like an opening scene featuring a well-dressed woman walking by a body of water – a technique ” that never fails to look dramatic ”mastered by Jane Campion, who added a piano to boot. New Gold Mountain’s detailed storyline is peppered with interesting moments, though no narrative thread ever reaches its full potential.

And yet: at the end of each episode, I was excited to return to this world, imagining exploring the sets on my own – walking past muddy concessions with fiery gold diggers, putting my head in tents, trying to avoid the latrines. Chen, whose work includes the comedy Homecoming Queens (one of my favorite Australian TV shows of 2018), does a great job of building the show into space, generously using the ‘walk and talk’ technique. popularized by Aaron Sorkin and The West Wing. Here it is not only an interesting way to organize a dialogue exchange, but has the added benefit of showing the details of the period and the lush Australian places.

No one in this country has yet made the equivalent of There Will be Blood, this brilliantly American portrait of great fortune at the expense of moral bankruptcy. But New Gold Mountain and the aforementioned films (Goldstone and The Furnace) orient themselves towards using gold and other natural resources as the material for national parables – stepping stones for discussing wealth, greed, power, politics and the apocalyptic human tendency to extract resources from the soil. . In a world overloaded with information, where we tend to assume that every story worth telling has already been told, Chen’s series reminds us that this is far from true: the history and culture, as always, are all about perspective.

New Gold Mountain will air on SBS on Wednesday, October 13, 2021 and is available on SBS on Demand