The geography of New Zealand is eclectic, with tropical rainforests only a few hundred miles from vast golden beaches or metropolitan cities. It makes perfect sense that Peter Jackson is filming The Lord of the Rings trilogy in his home country, able to plumb the crags of Mount Doom or the green hills and valleys of Tolkien’s magical Hobbit country, the Shire.
The films which emerge from the New York screening series, 2001: A New Zealand Film Odyssey (running February 7-13 at New York’s Clearview Theater), are no less diverse in tone and content. If there is a link, it lies in their jaunty ‘can-do’ pragmatism, stumbling forward with grinning resolve.
Filmmaker Harry Sinclair is represented with three films, including his oddball romantic comedy, The Price of Milk, which kicks off the festival. I couldn’t quite work up the enthusiasm to sit through his whimsical fable (complete with a farmer, his true love, and their 117 cows), instead opting for the violent absurdism of Geoff Murphy’s savage revenge epic Utu and Peter Jackson’s zombie-o-rama, Braindead.
Utu (Revenge) is a fascinating primer on a piece of New Zealand’s unusual history, making full use of the rough and rugged terrain ideal for guerrilla warfare. The film also functions as a bleak, comical statement on the absurdity of war. This twisted tale documents a Maori warrior (charismatic Anzac Wallace) leading a resistance against British colonists throughout the 1860s after his homestead is burned to the ground, his people slaughtered.
Told with lean, austere economy by Geoff Murphy, we almost forgive him for inflicting Young Guns II and Freejack upon an unsuspecting world. (Guess that’s what he gets for going to Hollywood.) In the world of Utu, violence is as unforgiving as it is ridiculous, blowing away random characters so often that one forgets how the conflict began. By the time a key antagonist has built himself a quadruple barreled shotgun(!), Utu has cast its deadly spell. You’ll be wincing through your smile throughout.
You’ll do more than wince throughout Peter Jackson’s slurpy gorefest, Braindead (released in the United States, seven minutes shorter, as Dead Alive). This one is, as they say, not for the squeamish. Set in a quaint 1950s village, it’s all tea and crumpets until nice guy Lionel discovers his domineering bitch of a mum was bitten by a poisonous rat monkey during a disastrous zoo visit. Before long, she’s a flesh eating zombie munching on the locals while our hero tries to keep her locked in the basement.
Braindead contains healthy doses of wit and whimsy to counter the ultraviolence. There’s a lovely fairy tale romance between Lionel and his darling Pequita. The chopsocky kung-fu sequence where the local priest ‘kicks ass for the Lawd!’ never fails to bring down the house.
Of course, you’ve got plenty of blood ‘n’ guts for fans hungry for the impeccable climactic zombie massacre as the good guys fight off the legions of the undead with axes, household utensils, and one trusty lawnmower.
Not every film in the festival is so engaging. What Becomes of the Broken Hearted? is the unnecessary sequel to Once Were Warriors, detailing the further adventures of wifebeater Jake as his life continues to descend into an afterschool special. Robert Sarkies’ Scarfies is the painfully routine story of five opportunistic squatters who, finding a gold mine of marijuana in their basement, become amateur drug dealers until greed does them in. Think Shallow Grave with New Zealand accents.
The evening of short films is far more promising, featuring Shona McCullagh’s surreal dance film, Hurtle, about two nuns racing through streets and fields in search of a port-o-potty. Maybe you had to be there, but the notion of two gymnasts in holy cloth racing for the john struck me as utterly hysterical.
Best of all is the harrowing dream logic of Alison (Jesus’ Son) Maclean’s Kitchen Sink, which starts off with a young woman pulling an incredibly long, filthy piece of knotted scum out of, well, her kitchen sink. Is that an umbilical cord? Gulp – is that a a baby in there? With what could best be termed ‘revolting minimalism,’ Maclean inches us through her inexplicably erotic ten minute nightmare, which has to be seen to be believed — there’s nothing erotic about sink scum or dead babies! Sure enough, right after she places the thing into a plastic bag, it starts trying to claw its way out. All I can say is, David Lynch, eat your heart out!
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