Written by Glenn Standring
Directed by Toa Fraser
New Zealand, 2014
Set in New Zealand, long before the arrival of European colonialists, The Dead Lands sees the journey of 16-year-old Hongi (James Rolleston) as he transforms from warrior apprentice to full fledged killer under harrowing circumstances he much rather do without. The land where he has grown up was, up until recently, prospering in a much-welcomed peace, but it was not so long ago that war engulfed the neighbouring tribes. One leader, Wirepa (Te Kohe Tuhaka), suffers an insatiable thirst to crush the wipe out the current détente and aggrandize his legacy throug whichever means available, including the senseless massacre of Hongi’s entire tribe. Left to fend for himself and seeking justice, Hongi will be call upon the help of an estranged warrior (Lawrence Makoare), some would say monster, who lives in a damned region of the nearby jungle known as the Dead Lands.
Premiering with some degree of fanfare at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival, The Dead Lands arrives on the scene with some very special attributes that make it a worthwhile proposition, if not an entirely original story. While some of the seams occasionally loosen too much for one’s liking, director Toa Fraser nevertheless bridges together, with relative success, various distinct ingredients, such as the tried, tested and true revenge tale, the martial arts genre, and, finally, a slightly different angle from which said revenge plot is shared, that being the perspective of traditional Maori culture.
The modern-day status of an indigenous population striving for normalcy amidst the more numerous descendants of colonial forces is a constant point of contention in several nations. Just as Canada learns daily to live alongside and, one hopes, with the First Nations, modern New Zealand must reconcile with the ever-present Maori community. Such straining but always necessary exercises stretch beyond the boundaries of politics and sometimes venture into the realm of the arts, film being no exception. While First Nations cinema struggles to find a widespread voice in Canada (one of the notable exceptions being 2001’s Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner), the Maori film scene receives shot in the arm with The Dead Lands. Those unfamiliar with the history of the Maori people, where they have come from and what they represent in today’s New Zealand, will arguably be lost at sea when deciphering the importance Fraser’s film holds. In essence, it simply isn’t very often that an indigenous culture is represented as unequivocally as is the case in The Dead Lands. For one, there are no New Zealanders of European decent to be found, and therefore no English to be spoken or heard. What’s more, the story is set some centuries ago, making it something of a period piece as well, albeit not in the popularized sense the term ‘period piece’ is understood. Finally, the picture showcases a martial art form rarely discussed or seen anywhere, let alone at the movies: mau rakau. Does any of this actually lead to a good movie however?
To put it plainly, the answer depends on how much mileage one is willing to invest into a film that treads familiar, dare it be said, very unoriginally territory in order to award the spotlight to a culture few ever get the chance to see on the silver screen. Under the present circumstances, and in most facets of life, compromises must be arrived at. Do the filmmakers venture into entirely unknown territory for cinephiles by exploring a completely different culture through the prism of a radically unique tale or do they use an easy to understand, easily digestible platform to show some respect to an oft-overlooked culture? Obviously the filmmakers went with the latter option, which is nonetheless commendable. From the standpoint of filmmakers wanting their project to earn as wide an audience as possible, there is sound reasoning to utilize a simple revenge tale that few should find challenging. Even so, it leads to a somewhat unfulfilling film in the end. While witnessing some authenticity is fine and well, not to mention that the simple notion of giving the Maori the spotlight is bold in its own way, The Dead Lands offers little to nothing, as far as plot is concerned, that viewers will find original in any way. There is the young hero who needs to prove himself, the homely, peace loving tribe that is destroyed, thus thrusting the protagonist into action, the unspeakably evil villain that refuses to compromise in any fashion, and the older, reluctant sidekick who eventually comes to the aid of the youthful avenger and teaches him the warrior’s ways.
At the very least however, the aforementioned older sidekick is cut from a different cloth. Residing in the titular Dead Lands, named after a great tragedy that befell his own former tribe, the Warrior, or monster as he is frequently thought as, is an earth-shattering presence to behold. Actor Lawrence Makoare is a titanic individual gifted with a screen presence effervescent with strength, intimidation and an animalistic resoluteness. While the reason he chooses to help Hongi is not the most plausible (particularly since he gladly massacres anybody else that has ever dared trespassing in his neck of the woods), his assistance to Hongi provides some of the movie’s most intense scenes. Makoare, adorned in impressive garb and makeup, truly looks the part of a mystical hybrid between creature and man. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Conan the Barbarian might even think twice before going toe to toe with this goliath.
The Dead Lands being sold as a martial arts action picture, director Toa Fraser and crew deliver some solid sequences in which the little known mau rakau is on display. The weaponry exercised by rivals is just as intriguing as their very flamboyant stances and facial gestures exchanged between skirmishes. Sharply carved harpoons are the more easily recognizable of tools, but that which Hongi, the Warrior and many others favour to really pummel opponents is the ”mere”, a teardrop shaped blade made of wood. Flat and wide, is serves as the perfect instrument to beat the brains out of an opponent. When well handcrafted, it should also be lethally sharp on the sides as well, therefore equally advantageous to slash limbs and throats. As for the physical confrontations requiring deft kicks and punches, mau rakau is not as sophisticated as some of the arts more generally popularized in the genre, but what it lacks in finesse it makes up for in brutality, every blow looking and sounding immeasurably painful. Fraser and company adequately shoot and edit these ferocious tests of endurance and might, typically finding a healthy middle ground between having to cut away from actual blows whilst giving the audience enough time to appreciate the choreography. Even though brilliant long takes are absent, the filmmakers also refuse to adhere to obnoxious shaky cam and schizophrenic quick cuts.
Ultimately, the word that springs to mind to describe The Dead Lands is ‘adequate’. The action is appropriately fierce, some very interesting weapons are wielded, the film often looks handsome, and the barbaric Warrior is something to behold. All that said, the story that holds all of these admirable qualities is nothing to get excited about. Familiar and derivative, the script is not nearly as adventurous as many of the projects other aspects. For all intents and purposes, the story feels like it is merely going through the motions with a plain, pretty boring blueprint to explore overlooked Maori culture. It is fun for the most part, but proceed with caution.