New Zealand movie examines an ancient tribal culture of revenge and honor, although it seems more interested in the fights, writes Jay Stone
The Dead Lands
Starring: James Rolleston, Lawrence Makoare
Directed by: Toa Fraser
Running time: 107 minutes
Rating: 3 stars out of 5
(In Maori with English subtitles)
By Jay Stone
If you’ve ever watched the legendary New Zealand rugby team the All Blacks perform their famous haka dance — a pre-game ritual in which a group of large men wave their arms in aggressive fashion, widen their eyes, and stick out their tongues in a gesture of frightening defiance — you’ll get some of the tone of The Dead Lands. This action movie, set among warring Maori tribes in pre-colonial times, is at once violent, exotic and compulsively strange: a fable of revenge with a haka vibe.
The story is reminiscent of another ethnographic adventure, the Canadian movie Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, the Zacharias Kunuk masterpiece about Inuit men fighting over honor and women. The Dead Lands, however, skips the romance and heads straight for honor: when a tribe led by the cruel handsome warrior Wirepa (Te Kohe Tuhaka) wipes out a rival clan — hacking them with stone axes and a flat oval weapon that looks like a deadly ping pong paddle — the chief’s son, Hongi, (James Rolleston) sets out to kill them.
But Hongi is young and inexperienced, and Wirepa’s collection of fighters looks like they would fit in nicely with the buff Spartan warriors of 300 (or with the All Blacks rugby team, for that matter.) However, when Wirepa, drunk with his own glory, takes a shortcut through the forbidden “dead lands,” he gives Hongi a chance.
The dead lands, so named because another tribe was wiped out there, are the home of a flesh-eating monster (Lawrence Makoare) who turns out, when confronted in his dark hut among his many wives, to be simply an imposing cannibal with legendary fighting skills. He takes a liking to the feckless Hongi — i.e., he decides not to kill and eat him — and teaches him how to confront Wirepa.
Director Toa Fraser (who also made the strange British fantasy Dean Spanley that featured a delicate, end-of-career performance by Peter O’Toole) sets the action in the lush forests of New Zealand, a setting that grows increasingly ominous with each brutal battle between the competing tribes. The camera whirls as half-naked fighters dance out a combat ritual that includes drawing lines in the dirt, growling, waggling their tongues at one another and, eventually, slitting the nearest throat.
Occasionally a note of spiritual calm interrupts the brutality. Hongi’s grandmother appears in a surreal starry firmament — an expression of the afterlife so artificial that it could have been borrowed from M. Night Shyamalan — to urge him on. It’s entirely unpersuasive, and while The Dead Lands strives for the force of a Maori legend, the grandeur is somewhat diminished by the endless, repetitive beatings.
Still, it has force: it would sit well on a double-bill with Lee Tamahori’s 1994 movie Once Were Warriors, about a dysfunctional New Zealand family descended from Maori warriors who are now treated as outcasts. These are the warriors they once were, and you wouldn’t want to mess with them.
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