The Dead Lands


Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

The Dead Lands
"A corking action film."

The Dead Lands are a place, a place inhabited by a monster, a place that is defined and constrained by systems of honour and being. Systems of honour and being that are Maori, a place and time that are a long time ago and far far away but still grounded - drawing strength from landscape, from environment, from culture.

The line "If I do not return tell stories about me" is perhaps the crux - a confident fatalism, somewhere around memento mori, and amongst the verdant and the lush and the mountain and the stream, et in arcadia ego.

Written by Glenn Standring (who also penned and directed vampire-mythos cop-oddity Perfect Creature) The Dead Lands has an action/horror sensibility that's well supported by Toa Fraser's direction. An early sequence with a pursuit through trackless forest manages movement of camera and cast to create a sense of place and scale that captivates, and later sequences of action are compelling counterpoint to increasingly tense diplomacy.

Diplomacy between tribes informed by notions of honour, dishonour, of requirements to honour the dead, to be willing to sacrifice even one's own family in the interest of peace. Peace that others are all too willing to break, it seems, until there is treachery - though treachery doesn't cover it properly. It is a betrayal, yes, but not just of people, but of a people - of the way things are, and have been.

It is an act that spurs Hongi (James Rolleson) into pursuit, pursuit that takes him through the Dead Lands. Pursuit that joins him to The Warrior (Lawrence Makoare), pursuit that results in blood-shed, violence as balletic as that of Fraser's Giselle, the formalised confrontation of Maori warfare - the paddle-like patu, the staff-like taiaha, a desperate siege within an abandoned hillside pa - visceral, physical, unrelenting.

The performances are strong, physical - the traditional martial art(s) of the Maori well displayed. Rolleson and Makoare are central, but mention should also be made of Te Kohe Tuhaka's Wirepa - heir apparent of a neighbouring tribe, but more aspiration than tradition - it would spoil things to explain how he chooses to honour his ancestors, but his actions are a transformative event, convincing, albeit shocking.

When Captain Cook was exploring the Pacific there developed among a certain class in Britain a mania for collecting the materials of these peoples, the plant fabrics beaten and dyed into sheets, the feather cloaks, the engravings and workings of peoples unimaginably remote to people themselves astonishingly remote to us. They had books whose pages held tiny scraps of authenticity, page-turning collages of artifacts. The Dead Lands is not such a collection of barely connected accuracy, it is a compelling whole.

It's also a corking action film - there are shades of The Raid and even Dredd in terms of its unflinching portrayal of martial art, of its evocation of setting in details as small as injuries. It is a saga, one that will be told even if someone does not return.

Does it feel like an old story because it is an old story, familiar because it has been handed down and changed and worn by the passage from mouth to ear to mouth to ear? Does it feel like an old story because it borrows its beats from others, gaining the credibility of a half-remembered tale by being made of halves of remembered tales? The film cannot answer, but it can be recommended.

Reviewed on: 27 May 2015
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A young Maori man sets out to avenge the death of his father.
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Director: Toa Fraser

Writer: Glenn Standring

Starring: James Rolleston, Lawrence Makoare, Te Kohe Tuhaka, Xavier Horan, Raukura Turei, George Henare, Pana Hema Taylor, Rena Owen

Year: 2014

Runtime: 107 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: New Zealand

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