Set in pre-colonial New Zealand, this Maori tale is dripping with tribal traditions of ferocious martial art, rivalries between clans, honouring the dead, glorifying ancestors and avenging the death of one’s kin. Hongi (played by an intense young actor, James Rolleston) escapes the massacre of his tribe, whose victims include his chieftain father, killed on the false accusation of treachery and desecration of a rival tribe’s burial site. This sets him on a path of revenge against Wirepa (Te Kohe Tuhaka), the heir to the rival clan who slayed Hongi’s tribe and in their death claims honour and glory.
The film is set in the wild woods of what we are told is Maori land. But the central narrative of the film plays out in the Dead Lands, a forbidden and vast forest, ruled by the monster mercenary “Warrior” (Lawrence Makoare), who is known to kill anyone and everyone who roams his lands. The Dead Lands are a lost, desolate expanse that hides within it spirits and curses of demonic, unknown creatures. It is said to have been inhabited by a thriving tribe (presumably the Warrior’s family). His father, in the name of honour for his family and tribe, called upon him to kill his wife and children, which he did. This act set him on a path of complete death and destruction, as he witnessed the slow and certain end to his soul and sense of being human. He brands himself the monster, the murderer, who even Death must fear, as he is not one of the living. Oftentimes in the film, the Warrior challenges death to try and get him, fear him, for his next victim would be Death itself. His brazen and permanent severance from life is his repentance, his penance for the crimes he has committed against his own. The character’s brutal exterior cannot hide the tragedy and innate suffering of his heart. Actor Lawrence Makoare does a remarkable job.
Barbaric violence and slaughter is the running thread of the film and not a single frame escapes this. Hongi, in search of a worthy ally, goes looking for the Warrior, for he must avenge his family’s death by killing Wirepa. Despite the obvious stereotypes of tribal living, namely that of uncivilized barbarians and death becoming the only tool to restore family honour and reverence to one’s ancestors, The Dead Lands is uncharacteristically human in its texture. It brings out the ruthless Warrior’s humanity as he makes Hongi’s fight his own. He takes Hongi under his wing to make him war worthy, for his teenage talents need training and honing of skills before he faces his toughest test yet. Hongi begins to look to him as a father figure.
Wirepa is oblivious of Hongi’s plans and decides to take the shorter route home, which brings him into the Dead Lands. Consumed by his desire for glory, he heeds no one’s advice and mocks the curse of evil and the spirits that inhabit the Dead Lands. His arrogance and his claim at immortality are no match for the Warrior and the throbbing revenge of Hongi. Wirepa’s warriors face certain death and defeat when they come face to face with them, while Wirepa is left at the mercy of Hongi’s spear.
Stunningly shot through the eerie lands that are Maori’s habitat, this savage tale culminates with Hongi forgiving Wirepa’s life, for breaking the cycle of revenge is the only means of honour and glory. It’s riveting in pace and chilling in gore. Toa Fraser’s foray is a unique piece of cinema that brings to its audience a gripping story of a lost culture.
While the film has received international acclaim, it does risk an entire culture being branded as uncivilized and barbaric, especially when seen through the prism of a pre-colonial Eurocentric worldview. The film must be watched for the craft of battle, the human desire for immortality albeit through glory in death, and the burden bonds of family create. The success of the film lies in its combined tryst with human greed for honour and glory, juxtaposed with a coming of age tale that uses reason and forgiveness to break the cycle of perpetual violence.
“The Dead Lands” is being screened at Cinéma Excentris on the 19th of March at 9pm. For more information, visit their website.