A fable about New Zealand’s indigenous Maori people before the arrival of European settlers, “The Dead Lands” values entertainment over archaeology.
The cowardly teenager Hongi (James Rolleston) barely escapes as a rival tribe seeks to settle a generations-old score by slaughtering his entire clan. Hongi vows to avenge his family’s deaths, but he recognizes that on his own it’s a suicide mission. So Hongi ventures into the eponymous dead lands — from which no visitor has emerged alive — to seek help from a cannibalistic bogeyman known as the monster (Lawrence Makoare).
The only aspects of the tale that seem uniquely Maori are the action sequences featuring the martial art of mau rakau. Aside from intermittent dream sequences in which Hongi communicates with his late grandmother (Rena Owen), the storytelling is Westernized. A running joke about magic mushrooms borders on parody.
Given the dearth of aboriginals represented in popular culture and the film’s overall tenor of respect, many will be inclined to give “The Dead Lands” a pass on its lack of substance. But one wishes director Toa Fraser could have channeled oral tradition in cinema as Rolf de Heer and Peter Djigirr managed with “Ten Canoes,” the lovely Australian film released in the U.S. in 2007.
“The Dead Lands.”
MPAA rating: R for brutal violence.
Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes.
Playing: Sundance Sunset, Los Angeles. Also on VOD.