I felt like this movie should have had more cultural elements to be categorized as an Oceania movie. I understand that this movie is powerful and has a huge impact. I was especially shocked when the really kind daughter Grace committed suicide because of the environment she was surrounded by, although she did nothing wrong. Plus, this movie shows the slum in New Zealand very well; the family’s eating around the very small table, the siblings’ sharing rooms because they do not have their own rooms, adults’ partying every night, and sometimes they would lacerate people. However, I would say that I could not really see the cultural side in this movie. Although this movie is called Once Were Warriors, it does not explain very much about warriors of Maori.
I have seen another Maori movie, Whale Rider (2012), before, but the movie has a lot of cultural elements compared with Once Were Warriors. Whale Rider introduces Maori’s legendary stories and most part of the movie is about the traditional Maori dance and singing. On the other hand, in Once Were Warriors, the family lives in a slum neighborhood, far from the traditional and more natural mountain side of New Zealand. The oldest son of the family has a tattoo on his face of Maori’s artwork. However, he never does Maori dance or singing and I cannot see anything related with Maori’s spirit inside of him. His younger brother practices his Maori dance skills in a reform school, but his dance scene was very short. It seems like this movie wants to worship Maori’s great spirit but they do not provide any detailed information of Maori’s culture and people.
The movie looked fake here and there. I guess that the reason why the movie did not show the cultural side of Maori is because they wanted to represent the real lifestyle of New Zealanders living in the slum. However, despite this, the reality that they tried to portray to viewers actually came out to look fake. For instance, in my opinion, young characters within the film lack good acting skills. Grace is really reliable and helps all housework for her mother Beth. For Beth, Grace was her only hope because her husband is always drinking and hurting people, and her two sons have gone wild; one left home, and the other son was sent to a reformatory. By Beth saying “Help your sister” to the younger siblings, I assume that Beth wants other younger siblings to follow Grace. However, the actress for Grace is really poor at using even a kitchen knife. She looks like she has never used a knife before and I do not think that is the natural way New Zealanders use knives. Furthermore, she says her lines in a monotone voice. The actor for Grace’s homeless friend, Toot, also has poor acting skills; speaking in monotone. Toot has a very important role in this movie; he represents homeless people in New Zealand. He lives in a broken old car under a bridge, and the graffiti on his car is exaggerated and colorful so it makes the homeless house look really fake. To show the reality of their life throughout the movie, Once Were Warriors should have used a more realistic setting and good actors with believable acting skills.
I guess Grace committed suicide because she couldn’t find anywhere she mentally belongs, whereas everyone else had places they could fit in. Since she had nowhere, she couldn’t express her feelings, so she kept a journal. I consider the journal a substitute for her home in a poor community. When her father tore apart her journal, she decided to commit suicide because she finally lost everything close to her where she can be herself.
Grace’s father Jake belongs the bar called “Royal”. Jake goes there everyday, gets mad easily as usual, and hurts and bullies many people. Jake’s friend Bully, who raped Grace, goes to the bar with Jake everyday, too. I consider this bar as a place where dissolute people go. One instance when the family goes on a picnic, Jake stops by this bar and tells the family that he promises to come back after he has had only one beer. While the rest of his family waits for him for a long time, he never comes back, so Beth goes into the bar and asks him to get back into the car, but he does not listen to her and ends up yelling at Beth. Considering this scene, Jake is so addicted to this place. It seemed like for him, the bar is better than his actual house with his family. The connection between Jake and the bar Royal is very clear and easy to understand.
However, I think this movie could have had deeper relation between the other characters and places where they belong. Beth belongs to her hometown, which is filled with traditional Maori spirit. Although she knew this, she couldn’t go back because she believed that Jake would give up his evil ways and go back on the right track where they could live happily in the slum. After she found out that Jake would never change his behavior, she decided to go back where she belongs. However, like I mentioned before, the scene in the movie of her hometown was very short and we cannot really see the special qualities of the place. Since I felt the movie wanted to tell us the goodness of Maori’s spirit, it should have shown Beth’s house and her family more.
The oldest son belongs to his gang group, and Mark, the second oldest son, just started being a part of a reformatory. I can see how Mark is rehabilitating by learning Maori dance and singing at the reformatory. This scene is good because it shows the connection between a place and a character. On the other hand, I think the connection between the oldest son and his gang group should have been told more. Everyone in the group has Maori’s traditional tattoos, so an explanation of the tattoos should have been in the movie. I also wanted to know what he thought about the group and why he was in the group in the first place. For those reasons, I honestly do not understand why this movie is considered one of the best films in New Zealand.