Director Lee Tamahori made his name with the fantastic Once Were Warriors about Maoris in his native New Zealand and now after a long career spent in Hollywood he’s returned to the subject. It even stars the same actor Temuera Morrison, now of course much aged, playing the role of the patriarch of a large Maori family in the 1950s. This one leans a little too heavily on the sentimental side for me but is nevertheless a strong period drama about a setting that is still underexplored.
The Mahanas are a Maori who mostly make their living shearing sheep owned by a white landowner. They are led by the authoritarian head of the family Tamihana who built up the family’s holdings from nothing but brooks no dissent. They are also rivals with the Poata family with the legend being that Tamihana snatched his wife Ramona away as she was being forced into marriage with Rupeni Poata. His grandson Simeon who is both studious and courageous, is the one who chafes most under Tamihana’s rule. When his class visits a courtroom, he stands up for a Poata who had been handed a heavy sentence for barging into a cinema hall on his horse and he speaks up when he realizes that the relationship between his grandfather and his grandmother isn’t what they had always been taught. One night, he upsets Tamihana so much that the grandfather gets physical and his father has to defend him. This leads the angry Tamihana to disherit and exile his whole family but Ramona defends them and gives to them a dilapidated house that she owns in her own name, and turns out was built by Rupeni Poata.
It seems that anything shot in New Zealand is magically beautiful and this film is no exception, especially as this is a period film with the cars, clothes and decor of the 1950s. It’s fresh and appealing as a kind of showcase of the New Zealander cowboy-like Maori lifestyle and Tamahori is shrewd enough to craft and the pace the film perfectly. For example, he opens with the scene of an impromptu car chase between the Mahanas and the Poatas which both serves as an introduction to the characters and the rivalry between the families as well as an exciting hook to draw in the audience. I love the character of Simeon as well, who is studious enough to be able to quote lines from books and movies and yet physically able enough to do the chores his grandfather demands of him. He can come across as being reserved as to be called a nerd and yet he has a kind of quiet determination that leads him to want to speak out while not being arrogant. It’s a very fine balance to strike to make such a likeable character.
At the same time, this film is perhaps a little too carefully put together and on the nose to be a powerful drama. The very first classroom scene has the teacher asking the students what is the nature of tyranny and hinting that it stems ultimately from weakness. This is a lesson that Simeon who knows all too well that just as strength isn’t necessarily physical, neither is weakness necessarily physical. There are no real surprises throughout as everything is telegraphed well in advance. Compared to Once Were Warriors, Mahana is so polished and smoothly constructed that it lacks the rawness that made the earlier film feel so authentic and natural. It feels satisfying to see Simeon essentially lecture his elders about their wrongdoings but it’s actually not terribly realistic if you think about it.
Still, I really do like this film as a kind of New Zealand myth-making about a long gone time and place, wrapped up in wholesome sheep shearing activities and growing up in a farm. Of course, the nastiness of Tamihana casts a shadow on all that, but on the whole this remains a remarkably positive depiction of Maori life and Tamihana himself remains as a respected and authoritative patriarchal figure despite his flaw. Americans have their own cowboy myths and archetypes, so why not for New Zealand even if isn’t a hundred percent authentic?