The Dead Lands
This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 26th October 2014
The star-rating may be the reviewer’s curse, but one thing this short-hand of a grading system is good for is providing an inevitable shortcut to comparison.
The fantastic Indonesian mixed martial arts film The Raid enthralled audiences worldwide with its relentlessly imaginative fight scenes and straightforward yet compelling plot. I loved every minute but gave it four stars because it didn’t quite reach the echelons of Greatness to warrant five (which for me includes things like not wanting the film to end, and not suddenly thinking about dinner while I’m watching it).
The Dead Lands is like New Zealand’s answer to The Raid, it too taking a simple tale of revenge (which inevitably evokes that Kiwi masterpiece of yore, Utu) and then spilling blood and guts across the screen for nearly two hours. Set in this fine country pre-first contact, the story revolves around Hongi (James Rolleston, further proving his post-Boy acting chops after The Dark Horse) who witnesses the devastating slaughter of his tribe and seeks to avenge the death of his father. The gutsy chief’s son must cross the forbidden dead lands, where he encounters characters from the spiritual realm (cue the welcome return of Rena Owen) and fights for his life against the dashing, sweaty enemy, Wirepa (Te Kohe Tuhaka).
Director Toa Fraser has been carving an eclectic career, from the Polynesian family drama No. 2 through to last year’s ballet Giselle. His step into action movie territory is characteristically classy, as The Dead Lands is in 100% Te Reo Maori, and he has employed veterans of New Zealand’s creative landscape (Leon Narbey behind the camera and a sensationally industrial soundtrack care of Don McGlashan) to help plough this exciting new furrow.
From a compelling and tense opening, Hongi’s quest sees heads cleft in twain in fight scenes that are appropriately brutal and gruesome. However, the camerawork renders some shots confusing and muddier than the lush forest setting, and ultimately, although we are committed to the heart of Hongi’s calling, a mere barrage of biff-baff may not be enough to sustain everybody’s interest.