Whina (2022)

As usual, my film blog has become largely just the Criterion Sunday entries this year, so I’m going to try and post more reviews of other films, maybe some that actually make it to cinemas in this country. This one is a local production, and it’s good to see one of the co-directors/co-writers is a wāhine, one of the crop of fine women directors who gained greater exposure via Waru (2017). It’s based on the life of Dame Whina Cooper, who is probably not as well known even in Aotearoa as she used to be, but retains a fearsome reputation for her land rights activism and Māori leadership up to her death at the age of 98.


I can’t really deny that I found this affecting, so any flaws were very much ones that are inherent to any generation-spanning biopic treatment. Given the time constraints, events from Dame Whina’s life are distilled down into short scenes, often between people representing different ideas, in order to keep things moving. There’s a constant back and forth between the 1975 hīkoi (march) that she led down the length of the North Island as an 80-year-old (though she lived another 18 years after that) and events from earlier in her life, and it’s very much that younger self, played by Miriama McDowell, who makes the most impact in the narrative. I was left wanting more to flesh out her life but that would probably have needed a wider canvas (like a miniseries). What’s here though is strong, and is focused around the community in its own spaces (we see nothing of the government and the only real pākehā representative is the Catholic priest), and that’s probably the film’s greatest strength, in depicting the power of community organising and action. It’s a suitable stage for Whina too, and the best place to gauge her contribution to society (there’s one brief scene of her in a Wellington boardroom and it doesn’t go too well). The only regret I was left with is that, if this had been a very different film with a different attitude to history, she would have flicked one of her late husband’s cigarettes over her shoulder as she turned to leave the Bishop’s Auckland church, as, in slow-motion and under a thudding rock soundtrack, she burnt down his church like he did her meeting house. The line the filmmakers went with is almost as damning, but…

Whina (2022)CREDITS
Directors James Napier Robertson and Paula Whetu Jones; Writers James Lucas, Napier Robertson and Jones; Cinematographer Leon Narbey; Starring Miriama McDowell, Rena Owen, Vinnie Bennett, James Rolleston; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Saturday 9 July 2021.

The Power of the Dog (2021)

Jane Campion’s latest directorial effort, her first feature film since 2009’s Bright Star, was the opening film of the New Zealand International Film Festival but it gained a cinematic release while the festival was underway so I went to see it just afterwards. It’s a film that doesn’t reveal its hand until fairly late in the piece, a classic slow burn story, and even by the end there’s still plenty of mystery to the characters, but that makes it all the more compelling in my opinion.


I am aware that this film isn’t for everyone, and honestly I approach this as someone who is not a huge fan of Benedict Cumberbatch as an actor or of Campion’s work this past decade (chiefly on Top of the Lake, though I adore all of her feature films). That said I feel there’s enough here that’s resonant and special, especially within the context of modern film production and certainly among films commissioned by Netflix. This is mostly a film of atmosphere and setting — narratively Montana, but it’s filmed in New Zealand, and I think that’s going to be fairly clear to anyone who’s from either of those places. It’s essentially a two-hander between Cumberbatch’s grizzled older rancher Phil and Kodi Smit-McPhee as Peter, the son of Kirsten’s Dunst’s Rose (who marries Phil’s brother George, played by a doughy-cheeked Jesse Plemons).

There’s a subtle but unavoidable underlying homoerotic tension throughout the film — which mostly comes out within the screenplay as talk about Phil’s now-departed mentor Bronco Harry, but is also clear in some of the loving close-ups that really I can’t explain here but are evident when you see the film — and I think it starts to become clear that Phil has a lot of the same background as Peter. Indeed, he is in a sense a version of the latter, albeit one who has actively remoulded himself to meet the expectations of his era, of his surroundings and of his peers into a more ‘manly’ man. Some of the dramatic moves don’t quite work to my mind — especially the way in which Phil and Peter at one point start to become friendly — but there’s an underlying power to their scenes that has almost a classical tragic resonance as the power balance between the two starts to shift throughout the film. And while nothing much outwardly seems to happen, it’s clear that this subtly sketched yet evident mental struggle between the older and younger men starts to consume both their lives.

The Power of the Dog (2021) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jane Campion (based on the novel by Thomas Savage); Cinematographer Ari Wegner; Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Jesse Plemons, Kirsten Dunst, Thomasin McKenzie; Length 126 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Thursday 25 November and at the Light House, Wellington, Friday 24 December 2021.

NZIFF 2021: Night Raiders (2021)

Just over a year ago, I posted reviews from the 2020 London Film Festival, of which I attended a few online sessions (and which has since returned fully to cinemas this year). However, since 2020 I’ve moved to New Zealand and in November it was the New Zealand International Film Festival, now bilingually rebranded as Whānau Mārama (which loosely translates as “family of light”). Although a COVID-19 outbreak meant that there were restrictions in place (every other seat left empty and very few filmmakers present), it was still great to see these films in person, even if some of the sold out houses seemed eerily quiet.

Anyway, as it’s now December and I’ve only been posting my Criterion Collection films for the last few months, I’ll take some time over the next few weeks to post reviews of the NZIFF films I saw, which will also help us get up to speed before we get to the inevitable ‘best of the year’ lists. I’m going to start with a New Zealand co-production which focuses on issues of indigenous rights and history embedded in a story that by its nature (science-fiction) looks to the future.


This is pitched as a dystopian post-war science-fiction set in a fascist state where kids are taken from poor non-citizens and brainwashed to prepare them for… well, the usual. You know the deal, big Starship Troopers crossed with The Handmaid’s Tale vibes. Many of these tropes are pretty familiar, but this film puts an extra spin on them by using a First Nations perspective, wrapping up race and class with its dystopian oppression and imagining an indigenous resistance movement. In fact it puts plenty of spins on its subject matter and is all the richer for all the ideas it pops out. Some plotlines feel as if they could be more developed but then it wouldn’t be such a fine, tightly structured picture. Plus it’s lovely to see the star and director of The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers) back on screen again as a fiercely-protective mother who has a heartbreaking choice to make near the film’s outset that resonates strongly enough that it pulls the whole film together even more effectively.

Night Raiders (2021)CREDITS
Director/Writer Danis Goulet; Cinematographer Daniel Grant; Starring Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, Brooklyn Letexier-Hart, Alex Tarrant, Violet Nelson, Amanda Plummer; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Friday 5 November 2021.

James & Isey (2021)

Continuing with recent films, here’s another documentary, this time set in New Zealand and about a family relationship. Through charting the life of a centenarian, it also sheds some light onto historical traumas around the indigenous Māori people of New Zealand and the way they have been treated, but this is a wide-ranging film, perhaps too much so at times.


There’s something very sweet, very earnest and also rather unfocused about this film, but I think the sense of randomness (tied loosely together with the countdown format to Isey’s 100th birthday) ties in well with the charm of the couple at the film’s centre, Isey and her son James, who lives with her but hesitates to call himself her carer. It’s a portrait of familial relations which has a serious underpinning, which is the way that Māori culture and language had been eroded so much by the time of Isey’s birth in 1919 that she was never taught the language and forced to conform to pākehā beliefs, a situation that has only seen some correction in the past few decades. In that respect it’s worth mentioning that the title isn’t misleading: this is a film as much about James as it is about the 100-year-old Isey (she’s 102 now), and James has a collaborative co-creator role within the project. The film endeavours to show how he has taken on, later in life, a spiritual role within his community as a tohunga (which he translates, presumably loosely, as “shaman” at one point). However, there’s relatively little context for understanding this and so although I think the film is respectful to his practices, it’s still participating in a filmic lineage, elsewhere using still-life images that are set against the soundtrack or the on-screen text, that evoke a sort of deadpan humour. This then makes James’s genuine spiritual earnestness — the rituals, the use of language (a form of ‘speaking in tongues’ as I take it from the film, but I suspect there’s more to it than that), the dress and demeanour of James and other participants in it — come across as potentially absurdist, which I don’t think they are intended to be at all. But that’s a small point in a film that has a whole lot of feeling for its subjects, including Isey, very much pushing against the trend for films about older people to be films about dementia or other such conditions, when she is clearly still living her best life.

James & Isey (2021)CREDITS
Director/Cinematographer Florian Habicht; Writers James Cross and Habicht; Length 91 minutes.
Seen at the Penthouse, Wellington, Wednesday 12 May 2021.

Cousins (2021)

Finishing the week of New Zealand-themed films with one that’s just been released in cinemas here, a multi-generational story written and directed by two women filmmakers, which grapples with some of NZ’s colonialist history and how it has affected several indigenous Maori women.


These kinds of generational stories of trauma, especially ones anchored in memory, feel like the kind of thing that New Zealand filmmakers have been adept at making for some time now. This example is a fine one, with each of the three title characters played by three different actors at various ages (childhood, young adulthood and then, around half a century later I would guess, as old people). The film obliquely blends stories from these three different eras, tying them together with flashbacks but also with visual cues and colours in the set and costume design, which have a poetic feeling to them, and makes up for some of the more sentimental stretches in the narrative. That said, I felt wrapped up in the emotion of the journey, which neatly ties together these strands, evoking a sense of ancestry, of the presence of death and the continuation of life that is presumably drawn from mythology as well as a shared understanding of the meaning of the land and of nature. There’s also, rather more directly, a reckoning with the racist policies of previous generations, especially with regards to orphaned children, keeping them from families deemed insufficiently civilised and placed in foster care (and the foster mother here is a bit of a monster). There’s a lot in the characters here, and in the grand sweep of the melodrama, and for the most part it held my attention well.

Cousins film posterCREDITS
Directors Ainsley Gardiner and Briar Grace Smith; Writer Smith (based on the novel by Patricia Grace); Cinematographer Raymond Edwards; Starring Tanea Heke, Rachel House, Briar Grace Smith; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Friday 5 March 2021.

Mr. Wrong (aka Dark of the Night, 1984)

Stepping back in time, NZ hasn’t been making feature films for all that long. There were certainly earlier examples, but much of the modern industry didn’t begin until the late-70s, so this 1984 horror thriller (of sorts, though it also has comedic elements) directed by a woman is therefore a rather early example of their cinematic endeavours.


I can’t deny there’s sometimes a certain cringe factor when looking back at old New Zealand films; the industry, like the homes and the fashions we see on screen, was a lot less polished back then, and sometimes indeed the acting and direction on some of those titles feel like the work of people still learning the ropes in an industry still in its relative infancy (though enthusiastic amateurishness has its charms too). Thankfully such is not the case with Mr. Wrong (that full stop is in the on-screen title), though as the filmmakers pointed out in a Q&A after the film, it didn’t have a very marketable title (the film got a different, rather unmemorable, title for its US release: Dark of the Night).

It’s a haunted thriller in a Hitchcockian mode (apparently he was originally going to adapt the same story before he died), though being made by a group of women filmmakers mean there’s definitely a feminist slant on it that you suspect would never have made it through if Hitch had been making the film. Partly that comes down to the ending (not the story’s original ending, though I shan’t say any more), and partly it’s just that all the men in the piece are indeed very wrong, whether overtly aggressive, hectoring or just condescending in a gently sexist way. Even the love interest, a certain Mr Wright (Danny Mulheron) — yes that is his name — has a habit of turning up at all the wrong moments and scaring our heroine Meg (Heather Bolton). As all these classic horror scenarios of lurking strangers in dark creaking homes and on rainy mountain roads play out, Meg continually tries to persuade herself she’s overreacting, always apologising to these creepy guys, and in part that’s because she doesn’t initially realise or accept that she’s in a ghost story, but also it’s a little bit because she’s been conditioned to be deferent and submissive, a quality she only slowly starts to shed as the film progresses. That’s probably where the feminism primarily lies, but it works as a subtly chilling ghostly thriller, and even has a few laughs in it. Well worth checking out.

Mr. Wrong film posterCREDITS
Director Gaylene Preston; Writers Geoff Murphy, Preston and Graeme Tetley (based on a short story by Elizabeth Jane Howard); Cinematographer Thomas Burstyn; Starring Heather Bolton, David Letch, Perry Piercy, Danny Mulheron; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Monday 7 December 2020.

My Wedding and Other Secrets (2011)

I covered Roseanne Liang’s most recent film Shadow in the Cloud (2020) yesterday, and this is her debut feature, though she has a 2008 short called Take 3 (which is included on the NZ DVD, and is particularly excellent). It hits a lot of the elements that you find in many romcoms and also casts the prolific Cheng Pei-pei as the mother, so you can’t really go wrong.


I think this would do pretty well as a Netflix original movie, given the lightness with which it plays out its romcom elements, along with the serious culture-clash drama of familial expectations that’s an undercurrent of the central romance. It coasts by on a fair deal of charm, though its lead actor Michelle Ang is very capable at delivering just the right level of adorable yet quirky that the script demands. This is especially notable given that her on-screen boyfriend is written as such a demanding asshole at times, and while I imagine she is supposed to be equally difficult (what with her avoidance of revealing her relationship to her parents), Ang’s skill at comedic delivery makes her seem far more reasonable — but then again, the romcom genre has always been adept at covering up behaviour that would be awful in any other circumstance. It also doesn’t hurt that the immortal Cheng Pei-pei plays her mother. As a whole it can be a little clunky at times, but there’s an exuberance to the story that belies its presumably small budget (what other level of budget do NZ films even have, that one beardy guy aside).

My Wedding and Other Secrets film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Roseanne Liang; Cinematographer Richard Harling; Starring Michelle Ang, Matt Whelan, Cheng Pei-pei 郑佩佩, Kenneth Tsang 曾江; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Tuesday 23 February 2021.

Shadow in the Cloud (2020)

Moving onto another quite different NZ film from the documentary I reviewed yesterday, there’s this. Roseanne Liang is a NZ-born and raised director who made an interesting debut (which I shall cover later in the week) and went on a few years later — presumably it took time to bring the project together — to make this utterly ridiculous B-movie action horror thriller, which I really enjoyed but certainly pulled down mixed reviews.


I saw the trailer for this and it seemed like something I’d definitely not want to watch. After all, I’m hardly the biggest fan of the lead actor (though she’s been in some good films), and it looked silly. Well, it is silly. It is beyond absurd. But the thing about starting from a place of absurdity is that you can pretty much do anything, and this film goes to places other films don’t, or at least not since that classic era of weird off-the-wall B-movies (the 50s? maybe the 70s). It takes its low-budget constrictions and spins them off into all kinds of things in its taut running time: an intense horror-inflected chamber psychodrama; a film about toxic masculinity in war; an emotional story of domestic abuse and motherhood; an alien film; a WW2 fighter film; the kind of action film where characters climb across the outside of a moving plane; and a bunch of other stuff, although I feel that this much is in the trailer if you’re attentive. And somehow, despite the involvement of screenwriter M*x L*nd*s (who I can only assume contributed the misogyny, though that’s one of the film’s themes, and it’s pretty clear that it’s very much set against it), it all seems to work somehow — or at least it does for me. I can imagine other people finding this just downright bad, but I think it might be some kind of masterpiece. It certainly deserves a release on one of those psychotronic video labels in maybe 50 years as an undiscovered classic.

Shadow in the Cloud film posterCREDITS
Director Roseanne Liang; Writers Max Landis and Liang; Cinematographer Kit Fraser; Starring Chloë Grace Moretz, Taylor John Smith, Nick Robinson; Length 83 minutes.
Seen at the Light House Cuba, Wellington, Tuesday 16 February 2021.

Dawn Raid (2021)

I’ve already done a week themed around NZ films, but look, I’m here in this country now, and I’m doing another, because I have, after all, seen more of them since arriving. There’s a new one out this week called Cousins, so I’m aiming to finish the week with a review of that, but in the meantime, this documentary I’m reviewing below is the first 2021 film I saw in cinemas, and it brings me up to a speed a bit with the years I missed while in, um, exile? It’s also worth thinking about because it’s at least partially a portrait of an underprivileged area of Auckland, Papatoetoe specifically, which has been much in the NZ news recently for being where some Covid-related lockdowns have originated, largely because its residents hold the lower-paid jobs for large international industries located nearby, including the airport.


Having recently relocated to NZ after a couple of decades away, it’s fair to say I was familiar with precisely none of the people in this film (aside from the American rappers who show up or are referenced periodically). I don’t know the South Auckland-based music label this documentary is about, I don’t know the key figures in that company, and I don’t even know any of the musical acts, but the very least I take from it is that there was and is plenty of talent in this impoverished part of NZ’s largest city. It’s a story of two grifters, young lads from difficult backgrounds who’d dropped out of high school and we’re trying to get their lives back on track in their early-20s via business college, who soaked up the lessons quickly and decided to start an empire on the streets of Papatoetoe (literally, not just making music, but owning food outlets, a barbers shop, office space, and who made much of their money via T-shirt sales). Although things go the route you sort of expect them to, along the way Dawn Raid Entertainment seem to have done a lot of good for their community, even if it is initially odd seeing this ginger-haired white guy explaining how his line of t-shirts reclaims derogatory terms used for Pacific Islands people (and perhaps, hidden in there somewhere, you can see a slight haze of hagiography even if not all the label’s artists in their interviews are quite as positive about its founders as the film tries to be). Ultimately it’s a documentary about community, and though I went in not knowing anything about the scene it covers, I ended up feeling rather fondly towards the two.

Dawn Raid film posterCREDITS
Director Oscar Kightley; Writers Matthew Metcalfe and Tim Woodhouse; Cinematographer Fred Renata; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at the Light House Cuba, Wellington, Thursday 28 January 2021.

Vai (2019)

This film was released in this country last year, but I’ve only just arrived and needless to say it hasn’t been out many other places — not that I think it wouldn’t do well, just that I suppose an eight-part portmanteau about versions of the titular character, seen at various stages of life on various Pacific Islands, isn’t the most marketable. It’s great though, in my opinion, the best kind of thing you can do with the format.


As a progression from 2017’s Waru (which was by the same production company), this Polynesian portmanteau film makes a lot of sense. In a way it’s less narratively tight because it’s not following a single storyline through all its short films, but in many ways it’s more interesting, because there are themes reflected in each of the separate pieces which broaden the story. It still ties everything together neatly by having the same cinematographer work on all of them (Drew Sturge), who shoots almost all as a single unbroken take. That’s not to say there aren’t any specifics, because each of the sections has its own sense of space, and the title cards make it clear that these are set on different islands, so we can’t take all of the rituals and customs we see as part of a single continuity. That said, they do very much work together, and I imagine there are some common roots across the region in, say, the prominence of fishing as a rite of passage (the “Solomon Islands” section is set entirely in a canoe as our 16-year-old Vai desperately tries to get her bait on the line) or the importance of ancestors (seen most clearly in “Samoa”, where Fiona Collins’s Vai leads what appears to be a funerary procession and literally witnesses her ancestors join in from beside their graves, one of the more moving moments in the whole film).

So it tells a generational story, from the young kid in “Fiji” through to Hinetu Dell reflecting on mortality as the film closes, but it’s also based around themes of the sea and water, which makes sense given its pan-Pacific Islands perspective. If Waru was land-based (and land rights have by necessity been a key theme in Māori history), then Vai is about the power of the ocean. This means that the “NZ Born Samoan” section is probably the weakest thematically, but in a sense the political point it’s making about the academy and about the colonising influence of (white, European) priorities suggests that the drama of the character there is her very lack of connection to the sustenance of the ocean. Conversely in “Tonga”, though our young characters are surrounded by water, they have trouble sourcing any which they can safely drink, and its sustenance is threatened by industrial fishing in “Kuki ‘Airani”. All these stories around a similarly-named titular character become in a sense stories of the same person but as they might be shaped in each of these spaces, but for all this, there’s an underlying hopefulness that comes through clearly, the hope provided by continuity with one’s roots, and which I think marks an advance on Waru.

Vai film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Nicole Whippy, Sharon Whippy, ‘Ofa-Ki-Levuka Guttenbeil-Likiliki, Matasila Freshwater, Amberley Jo Aumua, Mīria George, Marina Alofagia McCartney, Dianna Fuemana and Becs Arahanga; Cinematographer Drew Sturge; Starring Ro Mereani Adi Tuimatanisiga, Ar-Ramadi Longopoa, Betsy Luitolo, Agnes Pele, Evotia-Rose Araiti, Fiona Collins, Maliaga Erick, Hinetu Dell; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Wednesday 23 December 2020.