It’s safe to say that The Dead Lands’ sold-out sessions are an outlier at the sparsely-attended screenings that have so far defined Brisbane Asia Pacific Film Festival. Perhaps this lends some insight into the movie-going demographics of our city, where a Chekhovian Palme d’Or recipient is outshone by the Maori cultural heritage championed in New Zealand director Toa Fraser’s fourth feature.
That cultural component isn’t to be overrated. Earlier in the year, for example, one of my students with Nigerian heritage mentioned that her dad had taken her to see Half of a Yellow Sun; mediocre melodrama it may be, but it’s also an retelling of a story rarely told, while Allied-centric World War Two dramas turn up in droves every awards season. Similarly, tales of New Zealand’s indigenous population are thin enough on the ground to make The Dead Lands a real event for Brisbane’s substantial Kiwi population.
The Dead Lands is pretty good, though I can’t help but wish the festival had managed to draw analogous crowds for, say, Tokyo Tribe or Forma. Glenn Standring’s screenplay tells a familiar story, equal parts tribal and Shakespearean, as it pits two tribes with a violent history against one another. The conflict is driven by the sons of the tribes’ two chieftains; Hongi is the good guy, played by James Rolleston, pitted against the headstrong, aggressive Wirepa (Te Kohe Tuhaka). Wirepa defiles his ancestor’s remains as a pretext for war then slaughters Hongi’s tribe in the night, leaving the young man to avenge his father’s death. To win his revenge, Hongi enters the titular Dead Lands to forge a pact with the ‘monster’ that lives there, credited only as The Warrior and played by Lawrence Makoare.
There’s more depth to the story than it initially seems. Take, for example, an early confrontation between Hongi, Hongi’s father and Wirepa. Having stumbled upon Wirep’s desecration, Hongi flees to tell his father but is captured and presented by Wirepa as the actual culprit to justify combat (and, it is implied, win Wirepa respect in his own father’s eyes). Hongi’s father believes his son is innocent, but offers Hogi as sacrifice to preserve the peace between the two tribes. Hongi – motivated by honour and respect for his father – accepts his fate willingly; Wirepa, interested only in the complete destruction of the tribe, storms off furiously.
Many such stories would have us accept Hongi’s sacrifice at face value; a gesture of nobility that identifies him as the magnanimous hero of the tale. And yet, as The Dead Lands continues, it begins to strike at the toxicity inherent in such ‘honour.’ Wirepa’s treacherous actions are driven entirely be a need to live up to his father’s ideal of a warrior and a leader, yet they yield only tragedy and loss. As we come to learn of the backstory of the fierce Warrior, we learn that he, too, is defined by disaster born of an unthinking devotion to patriarchal honour. The Dead Lands argues that violence is cyclical, driven as much by vengeance as this harmful notion of what is ‘honourable.’
There is a lot of violence here. Fraser draws from both horror and action cinema directing The Dead Lands, using a near-monochromatic palette and exaggerated sound effects to create a visceral, physical experience. Spears thwack into the ground, blades schick as they slice necks open, and the camera whooshes like a wind through a dark forest. It’s occasionally overdone – Fraser is overly fond of Dutch angles – but the weight of the film suits the brutality of the subject material.
The best reasons to see the film are its soundtrack and Makoare. The former reminded me of tribal music as interpreted by John Carpenter in the ‘80s, and if that doesn’t get you excited I’m not sure what will. Makoare, meanwhile, delivers an intimidating, brutal performance; it’s not an easy ask to inhabit a character who can reduce fierce Maori warriors to quivering fear, and yet he does so with ease. Rolleston is less convincing in the lead: while he was miraculous in Boy and adequate in The Dark Horse, here he seems out of his depth. I think it’s simply a case of miscasting – while he’s certainly physically bulked up for the role, he’s not convincing as a warrior (this is certainly intentional early on, but problematic in the back half).
Such nitpicks are, certainly, irrelevant to the appreciative crowd that saw the film on Friday night. Now if only they could be convinced to hang around for the other sessions…