Once Were Warriors Review
Once Were Warriors, director Lee Tamahori’s searing debut, reaped huge critical acclaim around the world upon its initial release in 1994 – and is still one of the most significant films to emerge from New Zealand. Adapted from the best-selling novel by Alan Duff, it tells the story of the Hekes, an urban Māori family living in a rundown area of South Auckland who battle poverty, alcoholism and domestic violence.
The opening shot of the film presents an idyllic vista of mountains and lakes, but as the camera retracts this is revealed to be just an image on a billboard and in complete contrast to the bustling city highway that is slowly revealed beneath. The location here is a far less picturesque: large expanses of concrete strewn with graffiti, an abundance of car wrecks, piles of refuse and rows of shabby houses. It is in this predominately Māori neighbourhood that Jake “The Muss” Heke (Temuera Morrison) lives with his wife Beth (Rena Owen) and their five children.
Jake can be charismatic and capable of showing affection towards Beth. The couple laugh, drink and sing merrily with their circle of friends during a social gathering at the family home, though it seems these moments of joy are only ever short lived. It emerges that Jake has a hair-trigger temper, fuelled by alcohol, often causing him to erupt into a destructive rage. Just how rapidly his personality can change and the level of harm he is capable of inflicting on others is established in an early scene when he viciously beats a muscleman during a bar room brawl – Morrison here is suitably terrifying.
Unlike Duff’s novel, which is told in the first-person narrative of Jake, Riwia Brown’s compelling screenplay reworks the original story to provide more of a female perspective and brings Beth’s plight to the fore. Although Beth loves her husband and has enjoyed happy times, she has also endured years of extreme cruelty from him. This is strong-minded woman, who comes from proud Māori heritage and strives to hold her family together. She too has a temper, especially when drunk, and at one point stands up to Jake’s controlling behaviour. In a disturbing scene Beth refuses Jake’s aggressive demands to cook eggs, defiantly smashing them on the floor instead, only to be severely beaten by her enraged husband. Tamahori doesn’t shy away from showing some swift unsettling violence, or indeed the aftermath on this occasion as Beth emerges the next day with her face swollen and bruised. Jake’s lack of regard towards his family manifests itself throughout the film, notably during a planned day trip which had been eagerly awaited by the children, only for it to be completely ruined by his need to stop en route for “just one beer” with his drinking buddies.
Our sympathies are often drawn towards quiet spoken eldest daughter Grace (Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell). She thoughtfully looks out for her younger siblings, records experiences in her trusted diary and dreams of a brighter future. When at times it all becomes too much, Grace seeks solace in her best friend Toot (Shannon Williams) who lives in the remnants of an old car. Kerr-Bell gives a believable warm-hearted performance - remarkable since she had such little acting experience prior to being cast in the film.
The household starts to unravel when son Boogie (Taungaroa Emile) is taken into care having been involved in petty crime. A chance of redemption comes in the form of no-nonsense social worker Bennett (stage veteran George Henare) who is determined to get the boy’s life back on track, channelling his energy into teaching traditional beliefs along with the haka. There are further concerns as eldest son Nig (Julian Arahanga) gets drawn into a thuggish local Māori gang, menacingly cruising the streets, their faces covered in Ta Moko tattoos. Yet it takes some truly shocking events for Beth to realise the devastating impact that Jake’s erratic behaviour is having on them all and compels her to take control.
While the film may focus on a culture unfamiliar to some, the themes explored are certain to resonate anywhere. Tamahori directs with such verve that the pace rarely falters, aided by some stylish cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh, a Vrit no less, while Don Selwyn’s casting is also spot-on, assembling some impressive talent – Rena Owen is simply phenomenal and didn’t get nearly enough recognition at the time. More than 20 years after its initial release, Once Were Warriors remains a powerful, and at times heart-wrenching, experience that will stay with you after the end credits.
Second Sight Films have released Once Were Warriors for the first time on Blu-ray in the UK. Earlier editions that came out during the nineties on both VHS and DVD were rated 18, though the film has been recently re-submitted to the BBFC and downgraded to a 15 certificate. The BD boasts an impressive 1080p transfer, preserving the original 1.78:1 aspect ratio. The opening and closing credits have been slightly cropped to preserve the distinctive chunky graphics. The image is clean throughout with no discernible signs of damage. I recall the film looking slightly soft at times on earlier home formats, but there are no such problems with this glorious HD version which looks markedly sharper - even during darker interior scenes. Reds and yellows are dominant in many scenes, but faithfully produced, along with satisfying deep blacks.
There are two audio options: LPCM 2.0 and DTS-HD MA 5.1. The latter provides quite a dynamic mix - you will really notice the background rumble of traffic in certain scenes to remind us of the urban setting, though dialogue remains well-defined throughout. Music plays an important part in the film and this is delivered with great vigour, from Tana Renata’s stirring electric guitar theme to a fusion of hip hop and reggae beats that play throughout. The film also features the song 'What’s the Time Mr Wolf?' by Maori group Southside of Bombay, which became a huge hit in New Zealand – but is relatively unknown elsewhere in the world. English subtitles have also been included.
There is no audio commentary with this release, but an onscreen interview and insightful documentary more than compensate.
Interview with Lee Tamahori (29:11) - In a brand-new interview with the director, produced by Severin Films, he discusses his initial reluctance to take on the project thinking the tough subject matter would end his career. The New Zealand Film Commission, who financed the film, also had concerns about the material thinking it might show the Māori people in a negative light. Tamahori explains that although the film dealt with hard-hitting social realism, he wanted to dress it up with cinematic gloss and fast editing, to help keep audiences fully engaged. This marked his feature debut, coming from a background making commercials. Apparently, it was also important that the cast looked attractive, with the filmmakers scouting around local gyms to find men with an impressive physique to play the Māori gang members. He points out that it is mostly a Māori cast, with very few Pakeha (white) actors, as this was very much their story. It is revealed that the film was made on a very low budget, sometimes involving ten-hour days and a tight 35 day shooting schedule.
Although Duff has written a trilogy of novels about the Heke family, only the first two have been made into films to date. It’s clear from this interview that Tamahori had no interest in returning for the sequel, What Becomes of The Broken Hearted (1999), which was directed in the end by Ian Mune – who served as script advisor on the first film. Tamahori had already been enticed to Hollywood by this stage, just like director Roger Donaldson had done during the previous decade following his critical success in New Zealand. Tamahori doesn’t discuss his subsequent films in any detail, though it’s fair to say most have been entertaining yet unremarkable. I remember booking to see The Edge at the LFF in the late nineties with high expectations, only to be disappointed. My notes for this film would simply read: middling survival film where Anthony Hopkins nearly gets upstaged by a big ass grizzly bear.
Tamahori would later shoot a film in the Bond franchise, becoming the second NZ born director to do so after Martin Campbell. His entry, Die Another Day (2002), made money at the box office, but is arguably not a highpoint in the series – further blighted by some appalling CGI. After directing several other big budget action thrillers in the States, Tamahori’s career seems to have gone full circle with him returning to New Zealand and making The Patriarch (2016). This smaller scale production again focusses on a Māori family, reuniting the director with actor Temuera Morrison.
Once Were Warriors: Where Are They Now (52:20) - Julian Arahanga (who played the role of Nig) directs this 2014 documentary made for NZ television and to tie in with the film’s 20th anniversary. He manages to reunite all the principal cast members, a quest that sees him cross the globe, travelling from Cairns in Australia to Los Angeles. We glean some fascinating background information in the process. Rena Owen talks of how she was originally a qualified nurse in NZ with big ambitions, before her life went off the rails. She moved to London as a young woman, but unfortunately became a drug addict, spending time in a UK prison. She would later get back on track, enrolling at drama school and eventually getting what she describes as the role of her dreams in Once Were Warriors. Temuera Morrison was better known for playing doctor in popular NZ soap Shortland Street, set in Auckland City hospital. After being type cast in such a mild-mannered role, the filmmakers had real concerns whether he could credibly play the brutal Jake Heke, but of course he proved them wrong. Owen and Morrison have since had long and varied film careers, even cropping up twice in the Star Wars franchise (both worked on Attack of The Clones and Revenge of The Sith).
Out of the cast members who played the five Heke children, it seems only Arahanga and his co-star Taungaroa Emile (“Boogie”) have remained active in the industry. Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell - so impressive as Grace in the film, moved to Australia to continue her acting career, but sadly wasn’t successful and seems to have given up. Similarly, Joseph Kairau and Rachel Morris Tautau, who only had very small roles playing the youngest siblings are no longer acting. Arahanga also manages to track down Cliff Curtis in LA, who played Jake’s repugnant friend Bully in the film. Curtis has since achieved great success in the States over the past 20 years, starring in a string of hits including Three Kings and Training Day (he has also been cast in the Avatar sequels). Producer Robin Scholes talks about how she was keen to make a film featuring domestic violence having once been beaten by a male intruder. Writer Riwa Brown also discusses her involvement, skilfully adapting Alan Duff’s popular novel.
Trailer (2:07) - As trailers go, this does an efficient job at selling the film and without giving too much away.
Sleeve Design - The new artwork for this release is quite striking, featuring Rena Owen and Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell against a black background either side of a Māori male.
Once Were Warriors is released by Second Sight Films on 19th February 2018