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Once Were Warriors (1994)

One family becomes the battleground between tradition and modern life.

Directed by:

Lee Tamahori

Rating: 9/10

Running Time: 98 minutes

UK Certificate: 18

On DVD

Jake and Beth Heke (Temuera Morrison and Rena Owen) are New Zealand Maoris living with their children in a state of poverty in urban Auckland. ‘Jake the Muss’ is a well-known tough guy and troublemaker; a man who likes his alcohol and whose temper is quick to surface. An urbanised Maori of many generations, the descendant of slaves, he knows little of the traditions of his people nor does he much care. His wife Beth, however, comes from a line of chiefs and is well-versed in Maori traditions and beliefs. Jake never lets Beth forget that she is no longer amongst royalty, having gone against her family’s wishes in marrying Jake.

Jake and Beth’s marriage is not good – under the pressures of poverty and alcohol, Jake’s temper leads him to beat his wife, yet in spite of everything Jake is quite the charmer when he is sober and it is clear that they still love each other. Beth is also concerned about the effect that their lifestyle has on their children. Their sons are drawn into trouble, with one getting involved in a gang and the other running with a bad crowd that results in him being sent away to a juvenile institution. However, Jake and Beth’s oldest daughter Grace (Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell) seems untouched by the violence around her – intelligent and studious, she is the one who seems to have the most promising future. Unfortunately, the life they lead will affect Grace in a terrible way, ultimately making the whole family rethink their way of life.

Harrowing and brutally honest, ‘Once Were Warriors’ exposes issues that are common to all urban societies, not just those in New Zealand. The film pulls no punches and is thus not really suited to the faint-hearted, but for those willing to make the effort to watch it this movie provides endless rewards. The outstanding cast make each of the characters deep and effective, and although they are not all particularly likeable they are sympathetic. The competent handling of the strong storyline and excellent script make for an engrossing film that may be the best ever to have come out of New Zealand.

It's Got: Outstanding performances from Rena Owen and Tem Morrison.

It Needs: A strong stomach to handle some of the extreme violence.

DVD Extras No extras with this simple single-DVD release. DVD Extras Rating: 0/10

Alternatives:

Crooked Earth, Ladybird Ladybird., What Becomes of the Broken Hearted

Summary

Outstanding New Zealand film that explores modern Maori life with great sympathy and in fine style. Gripping and highly recommended.