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New Zealand 1994
Directed by
Lee Tamahori
102 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

Once Were Warriors

Lee Tamahori’s debut feature, based on an acclaimed novel by Alan Duff, is an uncompromising depiction of contemporary Maori dispossession, its stark cinematography and intensely-focused direction unflinchingly depicting the brutality of its subject matter.

Jake and Beth Heke (Temurea Morrison and Rena Owen) are Maoris living in a rundown area of Auckland. Jake's alcoholism with its attendant violent outbursts has effectively destroyed their family.  Nig (Julian Arahanga), Jake's oldest son, has turned his back on his father and joined a gang of Maoris. misguidedly styling themselves as rebels pitted against the white man's world. Jake's 13-year-old daughter Grace (Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell) prefers to spend her time with her drug-addicted and homeless friend. And Boogie (Taungaroa Emile) ends up in juvenile detention when his father fails to show up to speak on his behalf after drunkenly beating Beth the night before.

Once Were Warriors is harrowing both because of the violence shown and the knowledge that it refers to real conditions. Unlike Australia’s Aborigines, who have experienced similar dispossession, the Maoris are a war-like people. But with no tribal wars to fight their aggression is played out in the home and in pubs. The amount of alcohol drunk in both settings is truly frightening

In the leads Morrison and Owen are outstanding in a film that is compelling precisely because it is pitiless in its portrayal of a people lost. There are a few weak spots - Beth's face recovers remarkably quickly after her beating and some of the "thwack, thwack" sound effects, particularly early on, are cartoon-like. More importantlyits resolution with a crowd-pleasing hope for redemption tends it overmuch to the conventional.although this no doubt helped it become the huge hit that it was in its native New Zealand and elsewhere.




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