Once Were Warriors
R4 . COLOR . 98 mins .
MA15+ . PAL
With his shattering debut feature film Once Were Warriors, New Zealand director Lee Tamahori proves that he is a true master of the cinematic medium, tackling the emotionally difficult account of the near-disintegration of an impoverished contemporary Maori family torn asunder by alcoholism and domestic violence with astonishing verve and aplomb. Much has been debated about the motion picture’s harrowing depictions of violence - indeed, before its 1994 screening at the Toronto Film Festival, Tamahori warned patrons about the film’s horrific visuals, but implored them to see beyond its brutal veneer and appreciate it for the morality tale that it is - but whilst some scenes are nigh-impossible to watch, they are executed in a fashion that is surprisingly non-exploitive and, most impressively, are used within the film’s context.
More than just a remarkable visionary artist whose talent for directorial flair was developed from 10 years of directing literally hundreds of television commercials
- which cumulated in his receiving numerous awards within the industry, most notably the Mobius (USA), Facts (Australia), and Axis (NZ) - Tamahori shows that he is also a masterful storyteller, steeped in film lore. As if to confirm this fact, Tamahori cites several mainstream directors, such as Martin Scorsese, Sergio Leone, Francis Ford Coppola, and Sam Peckinpah as major influences
upon his work. Considering himself to be a “classic hybrid,” born to a Maori father and an European mother, Tamahori’s intention with Once Were Warriors was simple: “I’ve always admired films that make you reel out of the theatre and you have to go to the bar for a drink. I wanted to make one that makes people stand up and makes the hairs on the back of their necks stand up.”
Adapted by Maori playwright and actor Riwia Brown from controversial New Zealand author Alan Duff’s best-selling novel, Once Were Warriors had the distinction of being the first feature film to be produced by Communicado, New Zealand’s largest independent production house. Incepted in 1989, the company specialised in the field of television and video presentations, and, realising the potent nature of Duff’s book, decided - quite rightly - that Once Were Warriors would create an instant impact as their feature-length film debut. However, it can be safely assumed that even Communicado were unprepared for
the amount of exposure, the unanimous praise from audiences and critics, and the reforms made to New Zealand law in relation to the issue of domestic violence, that their film would propagate.
Brown’s screen adaptation differs significantly from Duff’s novel in terms of perspective. While the novel’s narrative structure consisted of musings from each character’s stream-of-thought, it was considered that Beth Heke was its greatest focal point and that the resultant film version should be restructured accordingly; thus, Tamahori’s motion picture acquires a woman’s point of view. Despite having a male director at its helm (assisted by a prominent female production crew), Once Were Warriors could be almost be regarded as a feminist film, as ultimately, through the constant routine of beatings, intimidation, and humiliation, Beth is resolute and defiant against her abusive husband. Although the cross she is forced to bear is heavy, she seeks redemption from her lot as an impoverished, but proud, Maori woman who, after facing the greatest fear that a mother can experience, finds the self-empowerment to reevaluate her life.
Receiving financial backing from the Film Commission, New Zealand On Air and post-production support from Avalon NFU Studios, the filmmakers focused their attention on casting. Perhaps the easiest choice was that of Rena Owen as Beth;
while reading Duff’s novel, both Tamahori and producer Robin Scholes envisioned Owen as the abused matriarch of the Heke family, believing that the actress was the only person who could deliver the emotional complexity and raw
intensity the character demanded. However, finding the right actor in which to portray Jake - and, more importantly, his Jekyll and Hyde characteristics -
proved to be a difficult undertaking. After relentlessly searching backstreets, gymnasiums and prisons, it was realised that the part would be impossible for a novice or inexperienced actor to play.
At first, New Zealand actor Temuera Morrison, recognisable to millions of his nation’s television audience as the genteel doctor on the soap, Shortland Street,
seemed to be an unlikely candidate. Normally, a lean, non-muscular man, Morrison did not befit the monstrous character of Jake the Muss - a bestial, abrupt, ruggedly Herculean individual with a volatile personality and a dark
charismatic sexuality - but, following a dramatic audition in which Tamahori was impressed by the power of the actor’s performance, Morrison secured the coveted role and began an intensive training and fitness program to transform his svelte physique into that of a stocky behemoth. The psychological demands needed to make the transition into Jake Heke took its toll on Morrison: “Finding the anger
and pain in Jake, and then losing it after the filming had finished, was tough. I got back to Shortland Street after finishing the movie and I wanted to swear at all the
nurses and patients.”
Following its international premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, Canada in September 1994, Once Were Warriors quickly gained universal adulation from
critics and audiences alike, receiving numerous accolades - including the 1994 Prize of the Ecumenical Jury award for director Tamahori at the Montreal World Film Festival, the 1994 Best Actress Award for Rena Owen at the same venue, the
1995 International Fantasy Film Award for Rena Owen at the Fantasporto Film Festival, Portugal, and the 1995 Best Foreign Film Award for producer Robin Scholes at the Australian Film Institute. In its searing portrait of a downtrodden people at the lower end of the caste ladder, the picture also drew support from indigenous people about the globe, who - through their own personal circumstances and discontent with their local authorities - identified with the plight of the Hekes.
No longer was Tamahori’s motion picture just a social commentary or human interest drama - it had acquired a potent political influence.
|"Our people once were warriors. But unlike you, Jake, they were people with manner, pride; people with spirit. If my spirit can survive living with you for eighteen years, then I can survive anything."|
Although it contains innumerable political subtexts relating to the social decline and, it seems, deliberate seclusion of the Maori population by the European
community, Once Were Warriors revolves almost exclusively around a Maori couple, Beth (Rena Owen) and Jake Heke (Temuera Morrison) who both exist in a tentative - and often volatile - 18 year marriage, frought with horrific domestic violence. Despite being the unwilling recipient of Jake’s fists, Beth is still emotionally tethered to her abusive husband through her intense love for him. At the film’s start, Beth seems destined to resign herself to self-martyrdom, believing that it is her pride and disdain for the contemporary social doctrine stipulating that women should “keep their mouths shut and legs open” which incurs Jake’s frequent wrath.
Fueled by the loss of his job, his seething resentment of his wife’s noble heritage, and his penchant for alcohol, Jake is the proverbial split-personality - one moment, he is the epitome of a gruff, but immensely likable, father; the next he abruptly transforms into a near-psychotic wife-beater and rapist, devoid of sympathy or emotion. The descendant of a long lineage of slaves, Jake is hatred
personified - however, his venom is not restricted to his wife alone, but also touches their five children who, after years of bearing witness to the chaos and insecurity engulfing their household, react in different ways.
The Hekes’ eldest son, Nig (Julian Arahanga) responds by rejecting his family to seek a sense of purpose and unity within the folds of a local Maori gang, the Toa Aotearoa, and becomes an active member after a grueling initiation process that entails a fierce group thrashing to test both the recipient’s strength and stamina, and the application of ceremonial tattoos. This ritual is a mirror into the
historical past, and is a modern attempt to recapture the warrior spirit of their ancestors. Grace (Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell) is the kind and courteous thirteen year old daughter who escapes from the horrible reality of poverty and hopelessness through the fantastical stories she writes for the benefit of her younger siblings, and Toot (Shannon Williams), a homeless boy who - typifying a lost generation - resides in an abandoned car wreck beneath a busy freeway.
Twelve year old Boogie (Taungaroa Emile) is young and impressionable, associating with fellow delinquents who actively participate in criminal activities - break-ins,
stealing motor vehicles, and indulging in a cocktail of illicit drugs and sex. His constant run-ins with the local police cumulate in the adolescent boy having to appear before the district youth court, after he is apprehended for car-jacking charges; however, this event proves to be the catalyst for the film’s downward spiral into gut-wrenching calamity as, on the eve of Boogie’s court attendance, Jake viciously bashes Beth to the point where she is barely able to walk, let alone accompany her trouble-prone son. Things become progressively worse for the
Heke household as Beth attempts to desperately retain a semblance of a cohesive family, that is teetering on the edge of self-destruction.
After suffering a traumatic loss that is symbolic of the inevitable fate of the women in this film, Beth is compelled to act decisively.
Once Were Warriors is presented in a screen aspect ratio of 1.66:1, and is not anamorphic. There are two concurrent problems here: 1) the screen image is cropped from its original 1.85:1 theatrical screen aspect ratio and, while I cannot condone the practice of “short-changing” viewers of the proper ratio, it would be
seem that any loss of screen information is minimal; and 2) the letterbox presentation on this disc is somewhat disproportionate, with the black bar above the screen image appearing smaller than that of the bottom. To compound
matters, the film’s end credits are presented in a screen ratio of 1.33:1, giving rise to the rhetorical question: Why?
For the most part, black levels are quite solid, but there are periodic lapses into opaqueness - in particular, Chapter 5, as drunken Maori stumble out of their cars
with crates of beer for a party at Jake’s home, and Chapter 17, when Grace contemplates her fate against a life of misery and hardship. Detail is quite sharp, providing some excellent delineation; shadow detail, too, is excellent. The
transfer’s stunning saturation does justice to director of photography Stuart Dryburgh (The Piano) and production designer Mike Kane’s (Desperate Remedies) colour palette, which consists of atonal hues: blacks, rustic browns, and earthy tones. Thus, it comes of no real surprise that flesh pigmentation is beautifully rendered.
There are no discernible MPEG artefacts. However, the transfer exhibits numerous instances of aliasing - most notably, perhaps, during Chapter 1 in the now-famous opening shot as the camera pans from the idyllic billboard and over the galvanised roof and ventilation grills of an industrial structure, and Chapter 2, involving bridge infrastructure and wire mesh gates. In addition to a fair amount of film artefacts - consisting of black and white spots and a few prominent scratches - there are indications that the print used for this transfer is lifted from
a copy of the theatrical release, due to the several reel change markers seen throughout the film - such as the instance witnessed at 16:52.
Although grain is manifest for the film’s entire duration - and is very obvious on occasions, particularly in Chapter 5 and Chapter 16, as Grace walks the derelict South Auckland streets in her private decent into Hell - it cannot be deemed intrusive. On the contrary, this is one of those few examples where the grain itself is perversely welcomed, for it lends to Tamahori’s film a gritty, squalid realism
that accentuates both the motion picture’s mood and the emotional plight of its characters; as demonstrated by the sequel, What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted?, a relatively pristine print can be detrimental to the psychological impact of a film with a dark nature.
The layer transition occurs at 1:12:56 at the end of Chapter 17, and arrives during a mid-shot of Jake, swaying to and fro in a drunken stupor, singing traditional
Maori ballads. It is profoundly noticeable as it happens in mid-action, but it is less disrupting than the layer changes in MGM’s The World Is Not Enough and
Roadshow’s The Cell. Regardless, a smoother transition could have been achieved if the change was situated at 1:09:35.
There are three selections available on this disc: the English Dolby Digital 5.1 and the English Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtracks, and the English Dolby Digital mono commentary by director Lee Tamahori.
Dialogue levels are profoundly clear and audible; sound traverses cleanly between the front left and right channels, with perhaps the notable examples occurring
during scenes where motor traffic is featured, such as in Chapters 2 and 10. However, the surprise here is the amount of inactivity associated with the rear surrounds in moments where they are expected to be deployed, and the meagre
contribution they make when they do come into prominence. There is no rear activity to speak of during the numerous reggae-flavoured songs featured throughout the film, or the Karaoke sessions in Chapters 3 and 4. In these instances, everything is regulated to the forward soundstage.
But in the rare moments where the rears provide support, it is quite effective - as demonstrated by the film’s opening credits and Chapter 17, when there is the accompaniment of a solemn high-pitched wind instrument, which succeeds in
producing a unsettlingly eerie effect. The subwoofer, on the other hand, is quite prominent through the film’s duration - as anticipated, it lends itself to the motion picture’s extensive Polynesian-influenced soundtrack and ambient sound effects, such as traffic roar, connecting punches, etc. But one of the most intriguing examples of the LFE’s use in this audio presentation occurs at 1:10:21, involving a man incessantly striking a punching bag.
When it was released in 1994, Once Were Warriors quickly became the most successful film in New Zealand motion picture history, surpassing the previous
box-office records achieved by Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993) and Steven Speilberg’s Jurassic Park (1993), and it is estimated that one in three New Zealanders have seen Tamahori’s film. That knowledge is made all the more staggering when it is considered that the film has transcended age, gender, and cultural barriers, not
only within its country of origin, but also - as intimated earlier - internationally as well. The picture’s phenomenal popularity is not restricted just to its uncompromising narrative and its resonating truth, but also to the forceful
integrity of Tamahori’s direction and the blistering performances of Owen, Morrison, and Kerr-Bell.
The term “masterpiece” is one susceptible to frequent misuse and bastardisation, and is often applied to films of dubious artistic quality (James Cameron’s Titanic, which sacrificed content for visual splendor - yet, attained an epic scope due to the scale of its budget and production - immediatey springs to mind), but Once Were Warriors deserves this mantel. As a visceral experience, it is undeniable; from a sociological and intellectual perspective, it is influential; and on an emotional
level, it is unparalleled in its ability to shock and galavanise. Most importantly, it is unforgettable. The epitome of independent filmmaking at its finest, Once Were Warriors succeeds on every artistic level, demonstrating Tamahori’s prowess for cinematic marksmanship as he scores a devastating hit on each of the picture’s
multitude of targets, and is a definite must-see.
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| And I quote...|
|"Succeeds on every level, be it visceral, sociological and intellectual... Brutal yet artistically beautiful, Tamahori’s tour de force is the personification of cinematic
- Shaun Bennett
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|by Shaun Bennett|
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