There are plenty of good reasons Once Were Warriors has become the most successful film in New Zealand's history, outgrossing The Piano and the Spielberg blockbuster Jurassic Park. Shock value is only one of them. Lee Tamahori's searing examination of a contemporary Maori family facing extinction in the brutal urban ghetto of Auckland has struck a nerve in a country where moviemaking tends to be decorous and tame, and some New Zealanders are saying it could signal a kind of artistic revolution.
American audiences are just as likely to be moved. This raw, brutal look at abuse, alienation and misdirected fury not only takes us into a world we haven't seen before, it clearly reflects the ongoing problems in ghettos closer to home. In any country where minority culture has been strangled, it will cut awfully close to the bone.
The heart of the piece is Beth Heke (Rena Owen), a sensual, struggling wife and mother trying to hold her family together amid poverty, desperation and the ongoing cycle of passion and violence under her humble roof. She clings to hope, but she knows better. Because Jake (Temuera Morrison), her seething, unemployed husband, is a hard-loving, hard-drinking brute with a fitting coil of barbed wire tattooed around his huge biceps. Every time the world deals Jake a blow, this self-enslaved, self-destructive man strikes back--regardless of whether his target is a muscle-bound bully down at the local bucket of blood or his wife of eighteen years. The bashing Jake inflicts on Beth in Warriors' most terrifying scene has to be the most graphic depiction of domestic violence ever put on film. It's also one of the most powerful metaphors ever for the tragedy of a people turning its rage upon itself.
But this is not the film's only heartbreak. The Hekes' five children are traumatized enough by the all-drinking, all-singing, all-brawling parties in their kitchen every night, but their father's explosions, and their mother's seeming complicity, have enraged or paralyzed them. The oldest boy, Nig (Julian "Sonny" Arahanga), joins a local street gang whose members emblazon their entire faces with nightmarish tattoos. His little brother Boogie (Taungaroa Emile) is shipped off to reform school after his mother wakes up too bruised and swollen to appear in court with him. Thirteen-year-old Grace, a sensitive kid who writes stories, embodies all of Beth's dimming hopes for the future, but Grace is no more immune to the dangers of life than her siblings: One of her father's beer-drenched buddies rapes her in her own bed.
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The relentless images of hopelessness and brutality in Once Were Warriors are relieved somewhat by Owen's earthy, full-hearted performance as a woman who must learn to survive, and help her children survive, by taking renewed strength from the pride of her ancestors. Evidently, playwright/screenwriter Riwia Brown tinkered with the Alan Duff novel from which the film was adapted to strengthen the women's roles and to shine a bit of light into the darkness of the book. In any event, Brown's back-to-roots subtext is the least controversial aspect of a film that has scandalized many ex-colonial pakehas (whites) in New Zealand and provoked outrage among some Maori, who would prefer that writers and moviemakers stress only the positive elements of their culture.
But director Tamahori has refused to blink or to turn away from the realities of life in the streets. At 43, he got his crack at this first feature film after making TV commercials in New Zealand for ten years, and it's obvious he didn't want to blow his chance. He hasn't. Whatever Once Were Warriors may lack in finesse of character or clever turn of plot, it makes up for in sheer power and passion. Rough-hewn and hand-crafted, this is just the kind of work all new moviemakers should feel compelled to study--including the young lions of our own country's New Black Cinema.
Meanwhile, Hollywood has already taken notice of Tamahori. For better or worse, his next film will be an MGM action picture called Mulholland Falls, about an elite crime unit called "The Four Hats" that operated in Los Angeles in the 1950s. Nick Nolte will star, and the budget is likely to be ten or fifteen times what this exciting new director had to work with in Auckland.
Let's hope Tamahori's adventure in the City of the Angels doesn't take him too far from his roots.