Once Were Warriors Review

In 1993/94, Jurassic Park conquered box offices worldwide. But not in New Zealand: there, a local production on a smallish budget beat Spielberg’s dinosaur epic. That film was Once Were Warriors, and it’s estimated that one in three New Zealanders went to see it. The film performed less spectacularly elsewhere, though it received plenty of critical attention. Leading actor Temuera Morrison, up to then best known as a regular on the TV medical drama Shortland Street, began to work in Hollywood. As did director Lee Tamahori, though his next two films (Mulholland Falls, The Edge), were much less effective. At the time of writing, he’s about to become the first non-British director to direct an official James Bond film.

Once Were Warriors, based on a novel by Alan Duff, is the story of the Heke family, living in a low-rent area of Auckland. Beth (Rena Owen) found Jake (Morrison) irresistible and now, eighteen years and five children later, despite herself she still does. But Jake has one fatal flaw: too often he resorts to violence. Eldest son Boogie (Taungaroa Emile) drifts into delinquency and is sent to a remand home; Nig (Julian Arahanga) tries to assert his identity by joining a Maori gang. And soon the pressure begins to tell on thirteen-year-old Grace (Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell). Beth struggles to hold the family together but tragedy strikes…

A word of warning: Once Were Warriors is not a film for the faint hearted. Tamahori does not spare us the violence that Jake inflicts on Beth, or on other men in bar fights. It’s not cartoon violence: it’s painful to watch, and is meant to be. Needless to say, some will find these scenes distressing to watch. But the film has an undeniable impact, and stays in the memory for a long time. Importantly, Tamahori and his scriptwriter Riwia Brown (who appears in the small role of Bully’s Girl) do give us reasons for Jake’s violence, without condoning it: a combination of drink, a macho culture that seeks easy solutions in violence, and also class resentment (Beth’s relatives feel that she married beneath herself). We also see his attractive side, or else we might wonder why Beth stays with him for so long.

A gritty, verité style drama (Ken Loach is an acknowledged influence) might well have been unbearable to watch. Instead, Tamahori and his director of photography Stuart Dryburgh set out to celebrate the physical beauty of the Maori people, and the film is suffused with reds and yellows and rich browns. Along with the pace Tamahori keeps up, that’s what keeps us watching, and there’s a terrific Hendrix-like electric guitar theme by Murray Grindlay and Murray McNabb. Actor-director Ian Mune, who went on to direct this film’s sequel What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?, acted as script advisor and appears as the judge at Boogie’s court case.

The film’s intended ratio is 1.85:1. This DVD is in a ratio of 1.66:1, with a thinner black bar at the top of the screen than at the bottom. This appears to be a hard-matte used when the film was shot, so what we have in effect is a full-frame transfer, and is therefore non-anamorphic. It’s clearly been derived from a cinema print, as cue dots (signifying reel changes) appear every twenty minutes or so. There’s some minor print damage, especially at the beginnings and ends of reels, and a few dust spots and scratches. The picture is a little too contrasty, but not unacceptably so.

Once Were Warriors was released with a standard Dolby Stereo soundtrack, as digital sound was in its infancy back then. This DVD has two soundtrack mixes: a remix into Dolby Digital 5.1 and a Dolby Surround. The 5.1 sound mix is mostly front and centre, but there are quite a few directional effects. The subwoofer is quite often used, especially to reinforce the sound of the traffic constantly passing the Heke’s house. You can usually tell the difference between a remixed soundtrack and one designed from the outset to take advantage of the possibilities of digital sound, and this is clearly the former. Having said that it does its job: dialogue is always clear (though some strong accents make it regrettable that there are no subtitles on the disc) and the music sounds very good indeed. There are twenty chapter stops.

Tamahori’s commentary is excellent. He gives us plenty of detail about the film’s production, the stylistic choices he and his collaborators made, plus further information about Maori culture (he’s half Maori himself) that might pass by pakeha (white) viewers. There are only a few gaps, and you sense he could carry on talking past the end credits.

The rest of the extras are either what you’d expect to be there, or else fillers. There are two trailers, a conventional (international) one, running 1:51 in Dolby Digital 2.0 with the voiceover oddly mixed into the left channel. A music trailer (with solarised visuals) runs 1:53. Interviews (6:50) with Owen and Morrison don’t reveal anything extraordinary, except to show how different Morrison looks in real life to Jake Heke. There are standard biographies of Owen, Morrison and Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell. Finally, there are six music videos. These are undeniably a plug for the soundtrack album (a platinum-seller Down Under), but I doubt you’d watch these more than once unless you were a fan of one of the performers. All of them are local bands unknown in the UK: “What’s the Time Mr Wolf?”, Southside of Bombay (4:30), “Once Were Warriors Theme”, Tama Renata (3:28), “Ragga Girl”, Upper Hutt Posse (3:48), “Tahi”, Moana and the Moahunters (3:46), “Kia Tu Mahea (To Be Free)”, Maree Sheehan (3:06), and “U Know (I Like It)”, Merenia (3:41).

Once Were Warriors is a landmark in New Zealander cinema, and a film that has a great impact on most people who see it. The picture could be better, but is acceptable, and Magna Pacific’s DVD is certainly worth having for the film and Tamahori’s commentary.

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