December 28, 2015 -- Seldom have I seen a more foreign film than this one. This is a story set, not only in a language, Te Reo, totally separate from Indo-European languages, but in a very different time and culture, as well. This is a story set in the prehistoric Maori culture (of New Zealand) a time of spears and axes and people walking and talking with the spirits of the dead.
The film starts with a fierce legendary warrior, known only as a monster, or demon warrior (played by Lawrence Makoare) easily killing another warrior in combat. This warrior defends “the dead lands” a tract of land which was once home to a mighty Maori tribe, now vanished. All who enter the dead lands are killed.
The scene switches to a nearby village where the visiting son of another tribal chief, Wirepa (Te Kohe Tuhaka) is given permission by the local tribal chief to visit the bones of his ancestors, slain in an ancient battle. But Wirepa is not there to honor the dead, but to avenge them. He makes a false claim that the bones have been defiled, a pretext for war.
Wirepa returns with his warriors and slays all but one of the men in the tribe, but not before he is cursed by the elderly tribal chief. Only one man, Hongi (James Rolleston) the young son of the slain chief escapes the massacre. The 16-year-old Hongi, seeking revenge, sets out in pursuit of Wirepa and his warriors This is clearly a suicide mission. After consulting with his grandmother in the spirit world, Hongi seeks help in his quest from the demon warrior in the dead lands.
Wirepa and his warriors have foolishly entered the dead lands to save time getting back to their own tribal lands. Hongi bravely visits the hut of the monster, telling him he is in pursuit of Wirepa, who has dared to enter the monster's lands. The demon warrior's wife advises the monster to help Hongi for the sake of his own redemption, and hers. The monster sees that he and Hongi are much alike, both are the sons of tribal chiefs, and both are the soul male survivors of wars.
Hongi and the demon warrior set off in pursuit of Wirepa and his warriors. Along the way, Hongi slowly begins to understand the nature of the demon warrior, who teaches him to fight much more effectively. The monster is a tortured soul, who did terrible things to his own tribe. He is a man without honor, denied admission to the afterlife because of his own crimes against his own ancestors. He is a man who no longer believes in honor, or even redemption. He tells Hongi, “Do not mistake me for a good man. I am not the hero from the stories. I am the monster.”
As Hongi and the demon warrior relentlessly pursue Wirepa across the dead lands, the question becomes will Hongi lose his honor and idealism? Will he become a monster like his new mentor? Will the monster somehow find redemption in this great battle amongst the sons of three chieftains? The final resolutions to these questions are somewhat surprising.
I found this story to be very compelling and surprisingly complex. It is a character study, as well as an action movie. There are brutal battle scenes, cannibalism and other terrible deeds in this film, but there is also a code of honor, and a streak of humanity which extends beyond the boundaries of life itself. I found it a wholly captivating tale. Lawrence Makoare's performance as the monster is one of the best I've seen in a long time. This film rates a B+.
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