There’s much to admire about a UK miniseries inspired by events that took place in China’s Tiananmen Square in 1989, that sometimes it is easy to forget it is also a work of fiction.
Chimerica is a 4 part drama based on a play of the same name by Lucy Kirkwood. At its heart is the dramatic real-life photograph of a young Chinese man blocking the path of military tanks as they proceed to Tiananmen Square when the Communist government crushed an uprising (June marks the 30th anniversary).
In reality there were several photos taken of the scene (with ABC correspondents Max Uechtritz & Peter Cave reporting from their hotel balcony) but the series centres on the fictional Lee Berger (Alessandro Nivola) who saved his roll of film from a raid by Chinese soldiers.
Fast forward to 2016 and Berger is a photographer for the New York Courier. Whilst he is in a Syrian war zone snapping photos, Donald Trump is approaching election in the US. So keen is he to put important news events onto the front page, Berger photoshops two confronting images together of Syrian war victims. But a VICE Media journo exposes his fraud and Berger is fired by his editor (F. Murray Abraham).
It’s a major fall from grace for this once-venerated photographer who, in an attempt to salvage his reputation, turns his attention to tracking down the mysterious “tank man” with a close correspondent (Cherry Jones). Who was he? Is he alive? What happened…? He becomes the story’s MacGuffin.
Also in the mix is Sophie Okonedo as a British marketing executive working in China, plus Beijing resident Zhang Lin (Terry Chen) who lost his wife in the massacre.
The original Chimerica play was staged in the UK in 2013, well before events of Donald Trump and fake news, and it feels like the urge to remain ‘current’ has been rather shoe-horned into something which would stand up just fine as a look at modern history without it.
Alessandro Nivola makes a fetching, forthright hero, gallantly championing traditional media and occasionally squeezed into contrived scenes that attempt to comment on a new world order. Character actors F. Murray Abraham and Cherry Jones are always dependable in conspiracy dramas.
Scenes based in China (I’m not sure where they were filmed) contain nice period references with Zhang Lin’s character having met his wife at a rare Wham concert in China. Now his daughter helps him bypass Chinese web blocks to find concert footage on YouTube (when she isn’t looking at YouTube cats).
I can’t help but feel Sino-American politics could be sufficiently explored against the backdrop of Tiananmen Square without the need to Trump things up (George Bush was president at the time). But as someone who once stood on the rooftop where the US chopper had previously evacuated Americans during the fall of Saigon, this hypothetical tale around military history has fascinating potential. I look forward to seeing where it goes.
Chimerica airs as double episodes 8:30pm Thursday 23 & 30 May on SBS.