When the opening credits screamed huge titles in your face, I thought that this was going to be one of those Grindhouse styled pictures with cheesy hilarious dialogues with over the top acting and swear words flying all over. In fact, the first few minutes established all that coupled with a very edgy score, but Grindhouse this is not, instead, it has all the trappings of a solid drama, and deals with very mature adult themes and of family.
This is a very different New Zealand that someone from the outside will take to. Gone are the picturesque postcard scenes, and in are the gritty, grimy neighbourhoods where families at the poverty line struggle to make a living. The story, based upon a novel by Alan Duff, centers on the Heke family, who are of Maori descent. And things are rosy at home as Mom Beth (Rena Owen) has 5 kids to take care of, in which Boogie (Taungaroa Emile) is going to be sentenced in juvenile court, and eldest Nig (Julian Arahanga) seeking a home away from home with gangs. The only and possibly sensible one is with Grace (Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell), who assists her mom in shepherding her youngest siblings from the explosive behavior of father Jake (Temuera Morrison) who has a penchant for violence when he has too much to drink.
Sounds like a typical family melodrama all set up, and it is, except that this was delivered with such realism that you'll cringe at the sight of unflinching violence. It's hard to sit through it, leaving you seething with rage as the victims find it difficult to leave and make changes to their lives. Once Were Warriors chronicles this struggle, and your emotions go on a roller coaster as you root for various characters to break out of their zone of discomfort, and to challenge the norms in order to stand up for themselves. The first time Jake rages in the movie undoubtedly sets the tone for the rest of the story, because slivers of hope get evaporated by the time you see how the make up artists work on Beth to bring to you the sheer madness.
The character of Jake is peculiarly intriguing, as for someone who got laid off and without a job, he's satisfied to just be on welfare, and what more, to spend those money on drink and gambling, though drawing the line on women. After hours late night parties at his home with his "pals" also seem the norm to sooth his ego as being the all round nice guy. And when things don't go his way, the only way he knows how to deal with it, is by his fists, where he takes pride in dispatching trouble makers in bars, unknowing that he too is trouble for his own family. Quite a tragic character really, for his clueless behaviour in not knowing how to take care of his family properly, being constantly disengaged from his wife and children, which naturally awaited for some tragedy to happen. On the other hand, one can only imagine the amount of abuse that wife Beth can put up with, if not only for the sake of the children.
It's interesting to see where the leads have gone off to after this 1994 movie. Temuera Morrison looked familiar, and a quick check on IMDb showed that he had portrayed Jango Fett and Commander Cody in the fairly recent Star Wars prequels. In fact, co-lead Rena Owen too had starred in the prequels as well. Director Lee Tamahori doesn't lag behind too, having helmed the James Bond installment Die Another Day, and xXx2.
Once Were Warriors had a sequel as well called What Becomes of The Broken Hearted? which was also made into a movie, though was less well received. Personally, this is rated by me as a highly recommended movie, and watching a Haka being performed here, definitely deserved its brownie points. For those interested, this film will be screened one more time this Monday evening, so check it out.