A Film a Week - The Furnace

 previously published on Asian Movie Pulse

John Huston’s classic “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (1948) echoes through Roderick MacKay’s feature debut “The Furnace” which premiered at last year’s Venice section Orizzonti, before heading on a festival tour with the final stop at Karlovy Vary, where we caught it. Both films are the stories of gold and greed, but the key difference between them are their milieus and the differences between the American and the Australian use of western genre tropes.

In America, westerns were created to preserve the myth of the hardy pioneers that fought the savage Natives for the land and have pushed the frontiers of the so-called civilised world from one ocean to another. Only in the New Hollywood era, the revisionist westerns appeared aimed at debunking the myths and used as the metaphorical canvas to expose the American imperial politics of the 20th century. In Australia, however, the western setting is connected with colonialism which echoes to the nowadays. The social landscape in Australian westerns tends to be more complicated culture- and class-wise and the contemporary Australian westerns are used as a tool for dealing with the dark past.

What makes “The Furnace” different from the likes of “Sweet Country” (Warwick Thornton, 2017), “The Nightingale” (Jennifer Kent, 2018) and “High Ground” (Stephen Johnson, 2020), and what makes it Asian enough for Asian Movie Pulse is its unique milieu based on a footnote from the country’s colonial history. In the late 19th century, the British Empire “imported” a number of camel drivers from India, Afghanistan and Persia to help move the freight through the vast desert landscape in the middle of the continent. Technically free people, those unwilling immigrants were by no means equal to the white settlers.

Our protagonist is the Afghan cameleer named Hanif (the Egyptian actor Ahmed Malek) who has quit his job in the imperial freight company to start his own with his mentor, the Sikh Jundah (Kaushik Das) and their Aboriginal tracker friend Woorak (Baykali Ganambarr of “The Nightingale” fame). They want to leave Western Australia for the parts on the North where there are more job opportunities, but firstly they want to attend a tribal ceremony at Woorak’s village. Out of the blue, the clash with a white prospector ensues, and it leaves Jundah dead, the rest displaced, and Hanif alone and jobless.

Soon enough, he encounters another man who has lost his buddies due to a violent encounter. Mal (David Wenham) is a rough old bush bandit who is the only survivor of the mine robbery. He is wounded and in the need of help, but he carries some gold bars on him. The two men team up despite Mal’s racist attitudes, and their goal is to reach the Chinese clan-operated furnace near the town of Kalgoorie where they can melt and split the gold before they part their ways and Hanif goes back home to Afghanistan. However, the members of the Army’s gold squad are on their trail, lead by the ruthless Sergeant Shaw (Jay Ryan) who is more than a typical western movie villain, since his character is more defined through the relations with his lawful subordinate Corporal Briggs (Erik Thomson) and his rookie son Sam (Samson Coulter).

There is a series of tropes the viewer has to endure through over the course of almost 2 hours of the runtime, especially in the character- and relations build-up department. The ending seems a bit prolonged and does not land that well due to the inflation of plot twists late in the movie. MacKay’s directing is somewhat textbook, along the lines of the contemporary festival-friendly movies that blend genre with historical and social activism.

But despite that, there is a lot to enjoy in this story told not too many times. The acting is solid throughout, but Ahmed Malek is a standout as Hanif especially in the way he channels different types of chemistry with the others, therefore creating the sense of compelling relations between the characters. On the technical plan, the cinematographer Michael McDermott should be commended for his work, not just for capturing the attractive desert vistas, but also for the use of the telling colour scheme that melts in haze of the golden tones.

The Furnace” is a modernly packaged old school movie, crafty enough to be regarded as a good watch. The grade can be even higher, given that it is a debut. Roderick MacKay shows some promise to become a master filmmaker with his talent in finding and telling the interesting stories.

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