Once Were Warriors : Movie Review
Rating : 4 stars out of 5 (Excellent)
Director : Lee Tamahori
English (NZ), 1994
It is the mark of a powerful movie when it makes you think about the past and present of an entire culture when the story itself makes no such pointed attempt at social dissection. Director Lee Tamahori's Once Were Warriors is a bruising look at a dangerously dysfunctional Maori family. They would all have been better off, were it not for one person - the "head" of the family- who drives or rather hurtles all of them from one trauma to another. Building up one layer of wreckage upon another, this movie slowly crescendoes to what could easily have been a completely organic and satisfying finale. But the last act breaks its own legs and tries to tidy up the damaged ends too much, and it foolishly verbalizes the title's metaphor instead of implying it. But till that juncture the movie performs the paradoxical feat of flying while crashing.
The first shot is that of idyllic mountains, greenery and lake - the world's fantasy vision of what is New Zealand. That aspect is true of course, but next to this natural heaven, in the cities and towns where plenty of people live comfortably, there cohabit many poverty-stricken adults and children who roil in damaged families.The camera smoothly introduces this reality by moving from the dreamy hoarding to grungy life beside a busy highway. The characters of the Heke family are slowly introduced - Beth is a slim attractive woman who's frequently battered into looking like a grotesque skeleton. She's the mother of five children (including two adolescents) whom she tries to care for but penury and a crazy father derail that care. The latter is Jake - a beefy man who's a battering ram that charges at its own good - the sort of "Raging Bull" who gives stiff competition to 1981's Jake La Motta. He doesn't give a fig about his children - and disguises this rampant neglect with what he considers as giving them freedom to toughen them up! As for Beth, she is the target of his bipolar oscillation between tender loving and brutal physical assault.
Tamahori was a successful international director of commercials before he took on this film which was his cinematic debut - and that helps in explaining this movie's solid technical credentials. The camerawork is excellent - be it static captures of beautiful outdoors, gliding takes or providing solidly cogent frames for the action. Crisp editing clocks in the run-time at a compact 102 minutes and there are smart scene chops, like how Jake's bestial assault on Beth smoothly cuts into the growling of dawn's dogs who tear into the garbage beside the house. Jake seethes that he hails from what were "a long line of slaves" and that the Beth's family did not approve of this outcast wooing their beautiful princess. But that Freudian explanation is only a pathetic excuse for his violent excesses and laziness.
Early in the story which is based on a novel by Alan Duff, Jake nonchalantly informs Beth that he's moved on to being on the dole because it pays only $17 less than his weekly wage! Binging on alcohol daily, holding nightly parties at his house,hanging out with his pals many of whom are worse than he is, and terrorizing his family, he gloriously fools himself into believing that he is the alpha male.Two of his sons are tumbling into criminality while his daughter is at grave risk in the unholy atmosphere that permeates the house but Jake hardly cares. His physical strength, which helps him to impressively smash into his targets, further feeds his delusions. It's easy to forget the underlying terrific performance by Temuera Morrison - his formidable scowl echoing the ferocity of Maori warriors.
Beth's finely nuanced and sensitive portrayal is delivered by Rena Owen whose smiling and sensuous face toughens into one of defiant gumption when she realizes the nature of the overall tide. After a disfiguring night of domestic violence, Beth would have the deep sympathies and outrage of any sensible friend, but the steamy scatty woman who comes in to chat with her in the morning thus advises her "friend" -"Y'know what they say. Keep your legs open and your mouth shut!" Beth doesn't even have the solace of her cooking being appreciated, because her husband shovels on the salt even before tasting the stew! George Henare is also notable for essaying a no-nonsense state custodian who surprisingly morphs into becoming a Maori Mr.Miyagi.
The Maori are a Polynesian race who began arriving by canoes as the first humans to New Zealand circa 1250. In the mid 17th century, the Dutch chanced upon these lands and 200 years later, the British had entrenched their colonial clutches into these coveted islands. The Maori - an ancient proud people far removed from industrial and urban life - were not prepared for this new lifestyle and that clash of culture continues onto this day. Kiwis of European descent (often called "Pakeha-s"), to put it bluntly, consider these natives the white man's burden, while the Maori struggle to achieve economic and political power. NZ is now arguably and slowly moving towards becoming a republic, though the fawning infatuation and loyalty towards British monarchy is still widespread. But one thing is certain - the colonizing British and also the Maori-hating Pakehas would have loved Jake. Men like him would struggle to retain their "mana" even if it is returned to them.
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