The Heke family are Maoris living in Auckland who have not had the best of opportunities in life, and with the father, Jake (Temuera Morrison), a borderline alcoholic, it seems his sons are set on the same path to squandering their existences, though the mother, Beth (Rena Owen), offers a small spark of hope in that she continues to have faith in her children, no matter that reality appears to dictate they will never amount to anything. To make matters worse, Jake returns home today with a package of seafood he gathered on the way home from work, except he does not have a job anymore as he has been let go. He reassures Beth the social security will give them enough...
But she reminds him they're having trouble making ends meet as it is, and we realise that we are well into the social realism genre, one of the most regularly depressing forms of storytelling in film, and one which is accessible to every nation with the ability to make its own movies. These films, the grittier the better, tend to do very well at awards ceremonies, especially if they have their allowance of harrowing scenes, though the general audience take a lot more convincing; happily for the creators of Once Were Warriors, this caught on in a big way with the domestic viewers, to the extent that it took over from the likes of Goodbye Pork Pie when crowned the best New Zealand film ever.
There were, naturally, those who would quibble with that judgement, though there will always be naysayers, but as this did well internationally too it perhaps offered a skewed impression of what it was like to live in New Zealand and be part of a racial minority there. Not to say the problems suffered by the Hekes were invented, far from it, but not everyone's experience will be the same, and while it was true that alcohol was a major issue there, that did not exactly set it apart from billions of other people across the globe. It was important not to see the worst of humanity as typically Maori, and perhaps the more universal elements were downplayed by the project.
True, there was a reason to highlight the specifics of the characters here and relate them to actual domestic violence and other severe social drawbacks such as juvenile delinquency and child abuse, and that was to wake up a lot of New Zealanders to the fact that something had to be tackled and charity begins at home. If there was a protagonist in this, it was Beth, who is the voice of reason battered down by her oft-drunken husband whenever her strident point of view and its highlighting of some very pressing subjects gets too much to ignore, therefore he shuts her up with his fists. We are unquestionably on her side from minute one as she has the weight of the world on her shoulders but remains as strong as she can be under the circumstances, and her persona was deliberately inspirational.
What was not inspirational was the men in the story, led by the feckless, violent Jake but he didn't emerge in a vacuum. Basically, if they encounter a problem they use their brawn, their fists, and if that doesn't work out they retreat into the bottle; their suspicion of anyone who might use their intelligence or emotions to get through the day indicates that to survive in their world, being as stupid and brash as possible is the sole acceptable method, anyone else is asking for trouble. Again, not a mindset exclusive to the Maoris, but then, perhaps that was why Once Were Warriors struck the chord it did back in the mid-nineteen-nineties as there was something a lot of audiences could recognise in its drama, and indeed melodrama. This was not a piece that had any time for subtlety, it made sure you knew where it was coming from and repeated that with an ironic force that consciously assaulted you watching with the worst behaviour humanity can offer, at least on a personal level. If it seems a bit much, maybe that's what it took to get through to those it would help. Music by Murray Grindlay and Murray McNab.
[Second Sight's Blu-ray includes an interview with director Lee Tamahori and a catch up featurette as extras.]