The Dead Lands is a fantasy action coming of age movie that will perhaps please younger male audiences of a gaming generation rather than anyone looking for a more sophisticated take on the genre. It is set sometime in the Maori classic period in New Zealand, although the film cannot be taken as a strict anthropological record of their ancient culture – the costume is a little modern, as are the haircuts, although the cannibalism, violence and the key themes of honour and nobility running through the film’s core, are historically accurate.
It is however, one of the few films exploring Maori traditions and its language to make it to Western shores with such prominence. Otherwise it adheres to the traditional genre format with lengthy chase and capture sequences and breathtakingly violent fight scenes complete with ‘paddles’, a type of lethal blade used to practice Mau Rakau, a traditional Maori form of martial arts.
For its 108 minutes it follows Hongi (James Rollaston) as he seeks revenge on Wirepa, (Te Kohe Tuhaka) son of a dead Chief from an opposing tribe, for the murder of his own Chieftain father. As Hongi is only 16, but compelled by tradition to avenge his ancestors, although they and his father consider him a fool, he engages the help of a legendary monster warrior (Lawrence Makoare) who harbours his own dark secret. Some energetic acting and fiery Shakespearean asides and ‘milords’ make the film watchable, as do the occasional breaks in the mise en scene to focus on attractive shots of New Zealand landscapes and sea coasts.
But what’s most interesting is the film’s exploration of revenge, the power the Maori dead have over the living, and their ability, alive or not and as sometimes suggested in the edit, to talk to each other without speaking and to hear each other’s voices in their heads. It adds a mystical element that might have some making comparisons with Avatar, another fantasy action film. But unlike Avatar there is a strong message and hints at the Archaic period where tribes were less violent, did not practice cannibalism and lived in more supportive communities. Hongi is closer to this ideal than to the one he finds himself born into- through duty he is forced to enact his violent revenge, but he is not as his father himself commented, a warrior, and our suspicions are gratifyingly satisfied in the film’s last few scenes.
Whilst being a violent action film, The Dead Lands actually offers the audience an alternative to all the bloodshed, although in the film this alternative is denounced as stupid. However, The Dead Lands is about showing a developing Maori culture, unconsciously preparing itself for the advent of the white Europeans and Christianity and despite being full of violence, this is where the interest lies- the movie is preoccupied with discussing the themes of revenge, duty, honour, redemption and nobility in what also seems like very modern terms. ‘What does it mean to be noble?’, scoffs the monster warrior, ‘it’s just politics’ proves my point. Not only is it a film about coming of age and a boy accepting his tribal duties as a man, it is also a serious attempt at a discussion about how meaningful and worthy these duties and rituals are.
Sometimes the mise en scene is a little awkward, although the last shot of Hongi at the end of the film is charged with historical meaning and harks back to the Polynesian migration of the past and the coming of the fast approaching future. The score is a little gamey and for that reason, sometimes annoying, as is the seemingly slightly sped up shots of the fight sequences. However the director Toa Fraser, for whom it is his first action film, should be congratulated for embracing ancient Maorist traditions and themes and bringing them on the big screen to western audiences – for someone who usually detests action movies, it was a surprise to find that I was actually quite engaged, if still finding the horrific violence not to my taste.
The Dead Lands is sold out on 9th October but you can still buy tickets for the screening on Oct 11th here