‘The Dead Lands’: Toronto Review

The Dead Lands Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

The Dead Lands Still - H 2014

Heightened performances give an epic edge to a sumptuously photographed coming-of-age tale fired by honor and revenge

Set in the Maori world of pre-colonial New Zealand, Toa Fraser’s dazzling action-adventure is an imaginative voyage through a time of violent emotions

An exotic action-adventure liberally doused in bloodshed, The Dead Lands (Hautoa) chronicles a young man’s search for “repayment” after his father and tribe have been brutally murdered by savage intruders. It’s a remarkable film experience in several ways. The first point is the respect director Toa Fraser and screenwriter Glenn Standring accord the Maori people and their traditions. Shot entirely in the Maori language, it creates a primal world populated by the living and the dead. Performances are intensely involving as the fiery cast, not all of whom are Maori, spit out their lines with Shakespearean passion. Finally, it introduces a new martial art form to the screen, armed fighting with deadly paddles, in fight scenes staged in breath-taking acrobatics. The high level of testosterone unleashed in these combat sequences points to a young male audience, but the visuals and the acting are rich enough to capture the fancy of any viewer who tunes in to fantasy-adventure.

Unlike Mel Gibson’s 2006 indigenous drama Apocalypto, which was set during the collapse of the Mayan civilization in Mesoamerica, Dead Lands avoids historical inaccuracy by unfolding in some distant, pre-colonial time. In any case, the story is quite abstract and stylized. The men's eye-catching plumed skirts, jewelry, tattoos and piercings are more amusing flights of fancy than anthropologically precise, which is in keeping with the story of vengeful ghosts and bloody murder.

Posturing as a great warrior whose only thought is the glory that will come to him when he avenges his ancestors, dashing bad boy Wirepa (New Zealand TV star Te Kohe Tuhaka) strides into the hero’s village and uses his unburied ancestors as an excuse to declare war. He and his bare-chested warriors sport long, dreadlocked mohawks and invoke neo-Nazis in their determination to kill. That night, the good chieftain is beheaded and the entire tribe murdered. The lone survivor is the chief’s “stupid” son Hongi, played with soulful melancholy by James Rolleston (of Boy). To the wailing women who mourn their men, he declares his intention to kill Wirepa. Even his dead grandmother laughs at him from the afterlife: He’s only 15 and notoriously unskilled in arms. But he announces he will seek the help of the monster who lives in the Dead Lands, a fearsome creature who slays anyone on his property.

The Dead Lands, which once belonged to a vanished tribe, indeed are haunted with witches and malevolent spirits. Though branded as a coward because he survived the slaughter, Hongi bravely tracks down the mean, ugly, oversized warrior-"monster" (Lawrence Makaore) who enjoys eating trespassers and manages to enlist him in his vendetta. They have more in common than first meets the eye, and together they hunt Wirepa and his warriors for the rest of the film. Each encounter is an excuse for a flashy display of martial arts talent. There is even an encounter with a woman warrior. Though grossly outnumbered, Hongi and the monster have the dead on their side.

Fraser (Naming Number Two, My Talks With Dean Spanley) shows great confidence on the directing side. He may embellish Maori traditions and make his caped, bloodthirsty warriors pronounce a Shakespearean aside now and then when they address Wirepa as Milord, but he never makes fun of these cannibals who flick their tongues out in contemptuous challenge to enemies.

Cinematography by Leon Narbey is nothing short of sumptuous, giving the action a mythic-world dimension, which also is a side effect of Don McGlashan’s modern ethnic score, sometimes oppressively present but always atmospheric.

The characters are all well-drawn and acting is tough, iconic and credible, particularly the mask-like Makaore, a face from the The Lord of the Rings trilogy. He’s at ease philosophizing to Hongi as he casually dismembers a corpse for dinner, and his soliloquy on being a “bad” man, when he lists his crimes, is commanding. On another level, Rolleston makes a noble, preternaturally calm Everyboy intent on his coming-of-age quest, improving in fighting skill and gaining in maturity scene by scene, until his final showdown with Wirepa. As that villain, Tuhaka is superbly fearless and irreverent, protected by his arrogance and good looks up to the finale.

Production Company: GFC General Film Corporation
Cast: James Rolleston, Lawrence Makoare, Te Kohe Tuhaka, Xavier Horan, Raukura Turei, Rena Owen
Director: Toa Fraser
Screenwriter: Glenn Standring
Producers: Matthew Metcalfe, Glenn Standring, Norman Merry, Tainui Stephens
Director of photography: Leon Narbey
Production designer: Grant Major
Costume designer: Barbara Darragh
Editor: Dan Kircher

Music: Don McGlashan
Sales: XYZ Films

No rating, 108 minutes