Blue skies, lush green hillsides, a limpid lake: The first picture "Once Were Warriors" presents of New Zealand is the classic, expected one. But then the camera pulls back and that image is unmasked as a deceptive billboard sitting in a quite different environment, the trash-strewn, dead-end slums of gritty urban Auckland.
The highest-grossing film in New Zealand history, "Once Were Warriors" is unblinkingly intent on exploring the reality behind its country's benign facade, on exposing the dirty underside of the glowing picture postcard.
A relentless sledgehammer of a film, "Warriors" is raw by design, intentionally sacrificing subtlety and nuance to enhance the impact of its passionate muckraking. And while the picture's nightmarish scenario is undeniably powerful, getting beaten up by a movie is not a sensation everyone cherishes.
"Warriors" focuses on the predicament of the Maoris, the Polynesian group that ruled the island before the Europeans came and trashed and burned their way of life. Now, like so many indigenous groups, the film's ghettoized Maori are a culture that has lost its way, its members living on alcohol and the dole without any noticeable hope for better lives.
The film concentrates in particular on the family of Beth and Jake Heke. Married for 18 years, parents of five children, Beth and Jake still have moments (like the sentimental love duet they sing at one of their frequent all-night beer parties) when the initial attraction they had for each other is still strong and visible.
But mostly life for Beth and Jake, especially for Beth, is a catalogue of horrors. Though Jake says modestly, "I got a temper on me, who doesn't?," in fact he has a terrifyingly short fuse. A legendary bar brawler nicknamed Jake the Mus (for muscle) who thrashes strangers just to stay in practice, Jake loses it one night and inflicts a horrific, stomach-turning beating on Beth that leaves her looking as grotesque as the Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Living in a household like this, it is no surprise that many of the couple's children are troubled. Their oldest son, Nig (Julian Arahanga), is totally estranged and thinking of joining a motorcycle gang characterized by intimidating face and body tattoos in the Maori tradition. And his younger brother Boogy (Taungaroa Emile) is hanging out with petty thieves and in danger of being removed from the family and placed in a state institution.
Only Grace (Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell), the sweet-smiling oldest daughter, seems to have escaped the influence of this pestilent environment. A would-be writer who keeps her two youngest siblings entertained with stories, she confides her hopes to Toot (Shannon Williams), a glue-sniffing homeless teen-ager who lives in an abandoned car under a freeway underpass.
Aside from simply presenting these people and their environment, impressing this grim side of New Zealand life on the world's cinematic consciousness, director Lee Tamahori (a maker of commercials in his feature debut) follows several related themes. Can anyone escape from this sink of despair, what path will they need to follow, and how much suffering needs to go down before any of that can happen?
With a screenplay by Riwia Brown based on a best-selling novel by Alan Duff, "Once Were Warriors" is helped greatly by its unmistakable tang of actuality, the sense that the problems it describes are valid and inescapable. For the largely Maori cast, particularly Rena Owen as the strong-willed Beth and Temuera Morrison as the appalling Jake, that connection to reality enhances performances potent enough to make audiences feel they're experiencing the horrors as they're happening.
But, as often happens when films are intent on getting a message across, "Once Were Warriors" can't stop itself from overdoing things. This is one of those films where indignities schematically pile up and up and up, where if something bad can come out of a given situation, it will. Even its nominally uplifting subplot about the restorative power of Maori tradition barely makes a dent in the gloom.
By choosing to bludgeon the audience with ever-worsening tales of woe, "Once Were Warriors" paradoxically blunts its power, though the truth is that people may be too shell-shocked to notice.
* MPAA rating: R, for pervasive language and strong depiction of domestic abuse, including sexual violence and substance abuse. Times guidelines: Situations include glue sniffing, child molestation, suicide and numerous beatings, including the most graphic depiction of wife-beating imaginable.
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'Once Were Warriors' Rena Owen: Beth Heke Temuera Morrison: Jake Heke Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell: Grace Heke Julian (Sonny) Arahanga: Nig Heke Taungaroa Emile: Boogie Clifford Curtis: Bully Released by Fine Line Features. Director Lee Tamahori. Producer Robin Scholes. Screenplay Riwia Brown, based on the novel by Alan Duff. Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh. Editor Michael Horton. Music Murray McNabb, Murray Grindlay. Production design Michael Kane. Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes.
* In limited release in Southern California.