may not be familiar with the Maori martial arts discipline of Mau Rakau, but
there is a reason it translates as “to bear a weapon.” Viewers will see just
how lethal paddle-shaped Patus and assorted traditional spears can be when a
teenage Maori follows his father’s killer through a shunned stretch forest in Toa
Fraser’s The Dead Lands (trailer here), which opens this
Friday in New York.
is New Zealand before contact with Europeans, but it is not necessarily
unspoiled. Something so horrific happened in the so-called Dead Lands, the
various Maori tribes avoid it at all costs. The exact details remain hazy, but everyone
believes the old, ferocious figure known simply as “the Warrior” was intimately
involved in the atrocity. Just about everyone will travel days out of their way
to avoid his territory, not Wirepa, who just barges through.
arrogant young son of tribal chief has just manufactured a grievance against
their rival tribe. His subsequent sneak attack nearly wiped out all of Hongi’s
people and killed his father, the peace-loving chief. Nobody ever thought the clumsy
Hongi would ever amount to much of a warrior, but he will have to develop his
skills quickly to avenge his people. With the encouragement of his grandmother’s
aggrieved spirit, Hongi forges an alliance with the fearsome Warrior (with a
capital “W”), who does not appreciate the entitled Wirepa traipsing through his
territory. Despite his profoundly antisocial nature, The Warrior will take
Hongi under his wing, teaching him the deadly art of Mau Rakau.
Dead Lands is bound to offend
some viewers because its vision of pre-contact Maori is all about fighting. Yet
that is not such a bad strategy, since it allows the film to sidestep the
awkward melodrama of a Rapa Nui. It
certainly makes viewers reluctant to hassle anyone carrying a patu with
authority, which is something the film can hang its hat on.
the Mau Rakau fight scenes choreographed by cast trainer and co-star Jamus Webster
are spectacularly cinematic. The imposing Lawrence Makoare (a veteran of The Lord of the Rings franchise and Marco Polo) is an especially effective
action figure, who seems ripe for a cult following after all the glowering and hacking-and-slashing
he does as “The Warrior.” James
Rolleston and Te Kohe Tuhaka also go at it with admirable vigor as Hongi and
Wirepa, respectively. Frustratingly, Raukura Turei displays impressive Mau
Rakau chops and real screen presence as Mehe, a lady warrior and potential love
interest, but she is forced to make a rough entrance all too quickly after the
film introduces her.
There is probably plenty of ethnographic
hand-wringing to do over Dead Lands,
but the action scenes are cool and it provided a lot of work for Maori actors
and craftsmen. In its way, it should inspire widespread fanboy appreciation for
the time honored practice of Mau Rakau. Fraser gives it all a strong sense of
place and nicely instills a mood of mystery and foreboding. Recommended for
fans of Seediq Bale, The Dead Lands opens this Friday (4/17)
in New York, at the Village East.
Labels: Martial arts cinema, Mau Rakau, New Zealand cinema