Why Don't We Have Films Like 'The Dead Lands' in Canada?

The Dead Lands (Hautoa)
(New Zealand/UK, 107 min.)
Dir. Toa Fraser, Writ. Glenn Standring
Starring: James Rolleston, Lawrence Makoare, Te Kohe Tuhaka, Xavier Horan, Rakura Turei
Lawrence Makoare in The Dead Lands.
Photo courtesy of Video Services Corp.

Why don’t we have films like The Dead Lands in Canada? Screening in Ottawa at The ByTowne the very week that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission finally brought serious discussions about the treatment of First Nations persons to the forefront, the power of seeing The Dead Lands on the big screen offers a reminder that Canadian cinema doesn’t give full representation to the history and heritage on which this nation stands. One can literally count on one finger the number of kick-ass First Nations dramas we have in Canada (Rhymes for Young Ghouls) and only a few other fingers account for pre-colonial dramatizations of First Nations communities (Maïna, which is not good, and Atanarjuat, a landmark film, for sure). A film like The Dead Lands gives a rich, thrilling, and decidedly cinematic dramatization of indigenous culture. The film is a game-changer not for its spectacular action, but for the way it weaves myth, folklore, and tribal codes into the power dynamics that fuel the drama. This wild and accessible action film is another example for why Canada should look to New Zealand and Australia for cinematic inspiration.

This film by UK director Toa Fraser (Dean Spanley) is presented entirely in Maori (it was New Zealand’s Oscar submission last year) and it whisks audiences to pre-colonial New Zealand where Hongi (James Rolleston, Boy) is thrown into the role of chief when is tribe is annihilated by a brutal and deceitful attack. The young Hongi embarks on an epic quest to restore honour to his tribe and to find justice for his father’s killer. His road to revenge leads him to the mysterious terrain of “The Dead Lands,” an eerie terrain where even brave men fear to tread. His foe (Xavier Horan), however, is a ruthless man driven by his quest for glory, and crossing the Dead Lands is a noble task for one leader to prove himself to another.

It’s in the Dead Lands that Hongi encounters the warrior (Lawrence Makoare). The warrior is an urban legend of sorts, an immortal monster with the power to crush and consume any man. Hongi and the warrior both share similar codes of honour, though, and they become allies in the fight against ruthless foes.

The Dead Lands unfolds like a conventional revenge plot with a hint of the epic sweep of Michael Mann’s The Last of Mohicans, but Fraser delivers some wickedly cool full-throttle action in this ferociously violent film. The Dead Lands offers some of the most spectacular and original martial arts sequences that audiences will see in contemporary film as the fights between Hongi, the warrior, and their foes offer the first-ever cinematic choreography of the traditional Maori martial art of Mau rākau. The warriors intimidate even from the space of seat to screen as they stand in a row, stick out their tongues, and chant before vaulting into intense blow-for-blow combat. Even the grounded fight scenes between Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon are too traditional to provide fair comparisons. There simply isn’t any other action film like The Dead Lands. Strong cinematography by Leon Narby is stylish and gritty, and it makes the fights land with a greater blow.

The freshness and uniqueness of The Dead Lands compensates for some inconsistencies in style and tone, as well as convoluted plot turns that are sometimes hard to follow. The novelty of the fights and the action, moreover, draws out the richness of the message of honour and respect that Hongi encounters on his odyssey to mature as a resilient leader. What the film lacks in focus it gains in theme. The Dead Lands resonates with its philosophy of nobility and good leadership despite its pre-colonial setting—there’s a reason such values endure, and Rolleston and Makoare embody them greatly in their strong performances. (As does Horan for the opposite as their foil.) Similarly, the respect for elders and ancestors holds strong as Hongi draws inspiration from his grandmother, who speaks to him from the afterlife in some vividly fantastical sequences that make this film additionally original. Future generations can gain much knowledge from such a wise film: it's the stuff from which greatness is born.

Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

The Dead Lands screened in Ottawa at The ByTowne.

Update: It screens at Asinabka on Aug. 19 at Victoria Island.
Screening is free/pay what you can.