Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Dead Lands (2014)

New Zealand before the invasion from the West. Megalomaniac chieftain’s son Wirepa (Te Kohe Tuhaka) attempts to convince his tribe of his glorious warrior spirit and assuage the spirits of his unburied ancestors by slaying a tribe his people were once at war with in their sleeps. The only (male, for women don’t really seem to count when it comes to tribal business of this sort, it alas seems) survivor of the massacre is teenage chieftain’s son Hongi (James Rolleston). Despite not being much of a warrior himself Hongi decides to follow Wirepa and his men and slay them in vengeance.

This plan would most probably end quite badly for Hongi, but Wirepa thinks he still hasn’t proved his worth quite enough, and so decides to make his way back home via the titular Dead Lands, a place once inhabited by another tribe that vanished over night in some sort of catastrophe. The place is supposedly home to a man-eating demon now who kills anyone who dares enter. After a helpful little chat with the spirit of his grandmother (Rena Owen) – or an ancestral spirit he calls grandmother - Hongi decides to try and win the demon’s help for his cause. The demon turns out to be rather human. He is a mighty, embittered Warrior (Lawrence Makoare) who does indeed kill and eat everyone entering his territory; Hongi’s quest sounds like just the thing to him to redeem himself in the eyes of his ancestors (and probably himself, though the Warrior is clearly too much in pain to be able to see it that way). Of course, even together with his new, rather frightening, partner, the odds aren’t terribly in Hongi’s favour, for it’s still two people against a whole war band.

For The Dead Lands, director Toa Fraser opts for a full immersion approach to pre-colonisation Maori culture, shooting the film in Maori, with Maori actors, and trying to look at the culture and its perks and flaws from inside instead of outside, eschewing the eye of the distant observer and with it any attempts to exoticize the culture. This matter of fact treatment of things even like ritualized cannibalism (or in the Warrior’s case, not ritualized cannibalism) works rather well too and makes it easy to get into the right mind set for the film; one might tut at it for not making a stand against cannibalism or the culture’s gender biases but then I don’t really need a film to tell me that cannibalism’s not okay and gender inequality is a very bad thing, or berating people and places long gone for not following our contemporary ideas of what’s appropriate. That’s just not what the film’s about. Instead Fraser does his best to let a past culture come to life on sympathetic terms. How correct the film’s interpretation of Maori culture of that time actually is, I honestly can’t say. What I can say is that the culture – or rather the slice of culture - it presents seems coherent and of a piece, which is all I ask of a film not presenting itself as a documentary or providing the whole historical truth.

Of course, to hook a contemporary audience, a film has to look for the potentially universal among the specific. Unlike a film with arthouse sensibilities would, Fraser (and writer Glenn Standring) seek the relatable by presenting a tale of vengeance as you can find it anywhere from the western through martial arts cinema through the bible, violence unfortunately being one of the big threads running through all of human history and humanity’s stories about ourselves. There are of course some differences in emphasis and presentation depending on the time and place any given tale of vengeance was made in or for but the core of these stories stays basically the same, and should be relatable enough even in film that otherwise doesn’t explain the culture it takes place in to its audience beyond showing it.

This expectation towards its audience to look at and understand Maori warrior culture as it presents it without giving awkward explanations, to be able to see parallels and differences without having them pointed out explicitly is to my eyes one of the greatest strengths of the film. The filmmakers trust in their audience getting it.

The Dead Lands’ other strengths are quite obvious. There’s the visual heft of the proceedings it draws from the beauty of a landscape it sometimes imbues with a haunted quality; strong – if shouty but that seems to be a Maori warrior thing as is expressive grimacing as part of their martial arts – performances throughout; the willingness to take the characters’ spiritual concepts as seriously as everything else about them.

The action scenes are very strong too, with a bloody brutality not really hidden beneath the physical elegance of the fighting that reminded me most of (martial arts film master) Cheng Cheh’s approach to this sort of thing -  in spirit, if not exactly in style. The film’s ending, on the other hand, does not feel like something by Cheng Cheh at all. Where the Hong Kong director bought into bloody vengeance and its results completely, and couldn’t imagine an out from an endless cycle of violence other than death, Fraser’s film finds its now seasoned in the shortest of time Hongi using the same sort of logic and context that births the cycle of vengeance to end it, as much as it is in his power, with cleverness and compassion that doesn’t feel like the film putting its modern values on him but seems like an inherent possibility in everything we’ve seen before.

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