The Australian premiere of New Zealand film The Dead Lands (2014) was one of the more heralded screenings of CIFF 2014 and with pretty good reason. The producer of the film is a former Canberran, the film is the onscreen debut of the traditional Maori martial art Mau Rakau and it just opened at #1 at the Kiwi box office, defeating Brad Pitt and his tank in Fury (2014).
Dead Lands wears its heart on its sleeve right from the get go, with action and violence in the very first sequence. In fact there is very little let up throughout the entire first act. The plot is a pretty stock standard action set-up. One tribe wipes out another, yet one young man is left alive. He seeks his (bloody) revenge. Perhaps it is a little too straightforward because it is hard to buy into this quest. It should be an easy one to bring home. This young guy has just seen basically everyone he loves brutally murdered. But you never feel his anger or lust for revenge. There is a really bloodthirsty and savage edge to the characters in the film. I would be interested to know if there had been any backlash in New Zealand to the depiction of Maori people in this way. I’m not suggesting it is at all racist in its approach or anything like that, but there is little else that characterises the main participants in the film aside from their barbarism.
I genuinely don’t want to be glib and dismissive, but the first ever Mau Rakau marital arts film sure would have been a lot more impressive if you could actually see the Mau Rakau. So much of the film is wrapped up in the spectacle of the fight scenes that it is totally befuddling that they are shot so shakily. On the very rare occasions that the action is slowed down, you can see why the filmmakers were so keen to showcase this art form. There is a hard hitting, grounded brutality to the discipline it that could make for really wonderful action film viewing. But 90% of it is shot in daft shaky cam, attempting to imbue something with a kineticism it already has in spades. It is even more frustrating because there is the occasional nice stylistic flourish. Particularly when the film pays homage to classic martial arts films of the past, with extreme zooms into a character as a fight scene is about to kick off.
Verdict: The Dead Lands is an overwhelmingly frustrating experience. For me, it is so jerkily shot in the main that it makes the action simply too hard to see. When a film is totally bound up in the success of its action sequences this is not a good thing. Schooner of Carlton Draught
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