The Dead Lands
Amidst a frenzy of blood and battle cries Toa Fraser’s The Dead Lands successfully works an unmistakably Māori tale into the well worn ‘vengeance thriller’ genre framework delivering a unique and exhilarating film experience. Like Indonesian instant action classic The Raid, Fraser’s movie showcases an indigenous martial art form (mau rākau) in its practitioners’ native language. This is the first true genre film I know of that is shot with the actors speaking only in te reo Māori (with English subtitles). This choice makes sense for the undefined pre-colonial setting and makes for refreshingly uncommon viewing. But make no mistake, The Dead Lands is no dry historical epic. In terms of narrative flavour the film would not seem out of place beside a Korean or Japanese revenge tale.
The cast is led by Boy’s James Rolleston—fast becoming one of New Zealand’s new generation go to actors—as Hongi, unproven son of the local Ariki (tribal chieftain), who unwittingly becomes the linchpin of a generational tribal feud tasked with avenging past wrongs and, if he can, finding a way forward. Rolleston is joined by an array of local Māori acting stalwarts such as Lawrence Makoare as the mysterious and (rightly) feared ‘warrior’, Rena Owen (Once Were Warriors) as Hongi’s long dead grandmother, and Calvin Tuteao as second-in-command of Hongi’s iwi (tribe) Ka. Te Kohe Tuhaka and Xavier Horan also impress as Wirepa and Rangi the leaders of the enemy delegation who doublecross Hongi’s people and set the action in motion. Though some of the less experienced cast members falter over lines in a language they are obviously not entirely comfortable in these core performances anchor the film and keep it from getting ‘lost the the woods’.
Production choices prove smart on a limited budget. The filmmakers opt not to go for too many overtly ‘money’ scenery shots instead letting the film get down and dirty in the native forest and bush. On occasion the bridging scenes of running and tracking get lost due to the homogeneous visual backdrop but the key locations have been well selected in terms of visual appeal and the tactical needs of the narrative and characters. There is a pleasing stylisation to the film which exacerbates its genre placement, evident in the costume design for the opposing combatants and Don McGlashan’s excellently anachronistic and aggressive electronica score. These elements match surprisingly well to the film’s supernatural layer which seeks to convey an older Māori worldview without being overladen by glitzy special effects. In the world Hongi, Wirepa, and their various compatriots walk, the earth and the ‘heavens’ bleed into one another.
And of course, most importantly, the action is decently choreographed and executed; mau rākau’s brutal beauty given its full visceral scope. Much credit belongs to the actors, their trainers, the stunt team, and the camera crew for pulling together such viciously compelling fight sequences. You feel the hurt, the danger, the urgency, the fear—who could ask for more?
A genre film, tasked to thrill and entertain, telling a distinctly Māori tale, and whose dialogue is entirely in te reo Māori has long been overdue. I’m glad to say that Fraser and co have done the opportunity justice with The Dead Lands, a milestone New Zealand action film.
Rating: R16 Graphic Violence.