DIR: Toa Fraser • WRI: Glenn Standring • PRO: Matthew Metcalfe, Glenn Standring • DOP: Leon Narby • ED: Dan Kircher • MUS: Don McGlashan • DES: Grant Major • CAST: James Rolleston, Lawrence McKoare, Te Koha Tuhaka, Xavier Horan, Raukura Turei
Taking a wild detour from his previous comedy dramas, playwright, screenwriter and director Toa Fraser’s fourth feature film turns his focus to mythology, muscles and manpower in this pre-colonial Māori action drama. Although Fraser has previously explored 19th century Māori conflict as co-writer of Vincent Ward’s River Queen (2005), The Dead Lands, in a similar vein to Mel Gibson’s Mayan adventure Apocalypto (2006), is filmed entirely in the Māori language, intending to underpin an air of pre-colonial authenticity and purity to the filmmaking process amidst the hyper-masculinity and kinetic energy of the primeval, action-adventure genre.
James Rollerston stars as Hongi, the teenage son of a venerable Māori chieftain, who must avenge the deaths of his father and fellow tribesmen in order to bring peace and honour to their eternal souls. Standing in his way is his father’s murderer and arch-nemesis Wirepa (Te Koha Tuhaka) who outweighs him in physical and mental strength and is baying for his blood. Hongi’s only hope for survival is to follow Wirepa’s tribe into the dreaded Dead Lands area of the island and avoid the much-feared hostile spirits who are said to live in the area. Once there, he meets the bitter and reluctant ‘Warrior’ (Lawrence McKoare) and pleads with him for help in his quest for revenge and restore harmony to the island.
Driven by a narrative steeped in Māori traditions and mythology, shaping the symbiotic relationship between Māori cultural identity, codes of honour and ancient heroism, at the heart of primeval action in The Dead Lands is a bloodthirsty, coming-of-age narrative and universal fable of good versus evil. Situating death as the catalyst to action whereby legends, apparitions and spirits mobilize the command to vengeance, Fraser’s narrative teems and trounces with relentless bloodshed, slaughter, violence and gore. With a plot remaining rigidly faithful to the tenets of the primeval action-adventure genre, once the impressively choreographed combat scenes, the stunningly vast landscapes and the mystique of Māori mythology have been stripped away, The Dead Lands does not add any intrinsic value to the either the action genre, the revenge plot or the coming-of-age narrative that could ennoble it from the plethora of films that have interminably engaged with similar trajectories within the genre.
Shooting the film in an ancient language may be sufficient to root an audience in pre-colonial times and engage with its generic elements, however Rollerston’s coming-of-age story and the psychological action aligned with the path to self-realization through courage and wisdom, is mobilized and executed all too quickly within the first act. As a result, the audience is stripped and robbed of further emotional investment in the process of spiritual transformation and all that remains is to sit back and either admire the view or become overwhelmed by the persistent physical action, which in itself, is just not imposing enough to transport the plot through to its narrative conclusion.
Fraser dabbles with the inklings of various sub-plots, which would have given a much-needed textured dimension to the narrative but these are frustratingly introduced and quickly shut down, creating further distance between the hero’s emotional trajectory and the audience’s investment in his transformation. As such, it is left to adversaries Hongi and Wirepa to savage their way through the sprawling, mystical terrains in a relentless bellicose cat-and-mouse chase, under the antagonistic gaze of the physically and emotionally dismantled Lawrence McKoare, who cathartically sedates both the punishing intensity with philosophical sway and bolsters the lagging narrative with honour-driven brutality, when necessary.
Steering the narrative with a wildly tempestuous rhythm, Fraser harmonises aesthetically illuminating landscapes with wildly visceral choreographed combat scenes, sonorously underpinned through the poeticism and mysticism of the Te Reo Māori language. While the tribal combative action has a ferocious elegance to its craft, the inconsistent lack of tension, owing to its feverish rhythm and pace, fails to appropriately build from the first act to its explosive conclusion, thereby losing further emotional nuance, which has already been outstripped by its lack of narrative commitment. Equally misplaced and more bizarrely however, as an adjunct to his mystical milieu, Fraser underpins the corporeal ferocity with a wildly retro soundtrack and garishly kitsch visual effects, more appropriate to a ‘70s horror film and which detract, rather than complement, the raw, natural aesthetic low-budget films often achieve.
Unlike Apocolypto, which freely submits to dramatic licence, Fraser’s commitment to re-creating an authentic portrait of Māori culture and conflict is ultimately let down by the filmmaking process itself, which due to its uninspiring, formulaic narrative elements and misplaced stylistic devices, depreciate the mystical and spiritual elements of the film, completely negating the beauty of Māori culture and philosophies Fraser intends to delineate. Ironically, had Fraser left such cinematic devices and narrative elements alone or fully embraced the artifice of cinema, he would have produced a more emotionally engaging, narratively coherent and socially relevant film. As it stands, it just serves as another epic, primeval spectacle, which fares no better or worse than similar films in the action-adventure genre.
The Dead Lands is released 29th May 2015