Writer-director Tusi Tamasese’s new film, One Thousand Ropes, has earned the Samoan native a unique place in New Zealand film, as it represents the second time a feature of his has been chosen as the country’s official Oscar foreign-language film entry.
One Thousand Ropes — about a father reconnecting with his youngest daughter and together put to rest the ghosts that haunt them — is a dramatic contrast in location and subject matter from his first film, The Orator, which explored the complex ceremonial rituals of Samoans and made the Oscar foreign-language shortlist in 2012.
Despite its timely focus on the difficult issue of domestic violence, overlaid with supernatural elements, One Thousand Ropes was not Tamasese’s first choice as a follow-up to the critical success of his debut feature.
He tells THR that he wanted to make a horror film set in Samoa but “the idea wasn’t working well.” However, a story centered on a male masseuse, a common healing figure in Samoan culture, which he’d investigated in a treatment for an earlier short film, merited a more detailed look.
“I decided to combine that idea with the horror film and a story about an antihero,” says Tamasese. “I thought, ‘I’ll try and get a story around all three things and see how it comes up.'”
Written and spoken in Samoan and English, the character-driven film focuses on its antihero, Maese. The gentle one-time boxer with a violent past is disconnected from the world and now uses his hands to massage pregnant women, while also working as a baker, as a way of atoning for his past life.
“For me, the hands were important,” Tamasese explains. “I read this thing about French bakers: They say if the baker is unhappy, the bread is bad. Maea is trying to make good bread.”
The location is also a departure from the open, lush landscapes of Samoa. Maea’s home in social housing in urban Wellington — a transitional place in the country’s capital city for many immigrants of New Zealand — mirrors his disconnection from his family and the world at large.
The presence of an old Samoan woman living as a ghost in Maea’s house provides the horror element. Their relationship is often hostile, but there’s a shared companionship. “The ghost is desperate to live again, which is why she stays there, and he’s also trying to be reborn as well,” explains Tamasese.
Tamasese was buoyed by the film’s reception at its world premiere at this year’s Berlin Film Festival. He says he couldn’t believe so many people wanted to talk about his film but adds that for audiences in New Zealand and Samoa, the film has been more of slow burn.
Tamasese also adds the film is “a hard film to watch” and that it demands quite a lot of people’s participation and patience. New Zealanders seemed stunned by it but can see the hope in it afterward, he says.
Being chosen as the New Zealand Oscar foreign–language entry for the second time shocked Tamasese. “It’s a surprise and an honor, but it’s such a different film to The Orator that we’ll see how it goes,” he says.