Blu-Ray Review: Once Were Warriors (1994)


Once Were Warriors was a one of a flight of films I saw at the dawn of IFC. It was one of the films that most marked me in my formative years as a filmmaker. It’s one of a handful of movies that rocked me to my core – in a good way. I was younger than one ideally should have been to be watching such fair but the upbringing of those who end up in film in one form or another is likely not orthodox.

As I progressed in film studies this film continued to shine as a true independent film. It was raw but lacking sensationalism, emotional while avoiding manipulation, a first nation film for the whole world to see, a film prizing honesty over spectacle.

In many ways it quite literally shined a spotlight subgenre of Kiwi film focusing on Māori culture. It paved the way for the works of Taika Waititi, like Boy, and subsequent films starring James Rolleston to get more international notice.


An interest in native cinema helps but is not mandatory when it comes to appreciating this film, The film starts off by plunging us right into the Heke family’s life as Beth (Rena Owen) need to keep everyone together against great odds based on the sociopolitical barriers the Māori face in modern New Zealand, but those things are unique in their details only and become apparent as the film moves on.

Clearly with the centrality of Beth’s character, Rena Owen is crucial to the success of the film, and she delivers and emotional cascade that radiates throughout the film. As such Owen’s was one of the most decorated actresses of 1994-1995 earning Best Actress awards at the San Diego International Film Festival; Montréal World Film Festival; Fantasporto; Nominations at the New Zealand Film and TV Awards and the Chicago Film Critics Association.

One thing that the behind-the-scenes materials help to underscore is how casting Temuera Morrison as Jake was an unorthodox, due to how he had become well-known and his persona, but it most certainly paid off. On the one hand you needed him to be a violent brute when his fuse runs out, on the other hand you need to see the jovial charmer who could win everyone over, and be the kind who could keep a family together despite his best efforts to splinter every one.


However, his and everyone’s success is due to Lee Tamahori’s vision he weaves naturalistic performances, heightened emotion, camera movement, edgy environs, and a rock music score to create a tale about a modern dystopian existence for a people whom once were warriors.

As one who went into this film for the first time completely unprepared, I’d recommend nothing more than the bare minimum and save all the bonuses for after you’ve seen it.

Bonus features


As far as the bonus features are concerned, there is the previously referenced vintage 1994 behind the scenes featurette on the film. It starts with a disclaimer stating the quality of the film is presented as is, and there was only so much that could be done. The need for the disclaimer is understandable but I’d always rather supplemental features be included rather than not even if they’re not in the greatest shape.

Aside from that Film Movement continues its tradition of including a newly written essay from a film writer well versed in the film at hand. The brief essay on Once Were Warriors by Peter Calder is most illuminating, and best left for after viewing especially if the film is new-to-you.



This Blu-ray is a must-buy for admirers of this film (which are numerous) and should be a rental priority for enthusiasts of foreign films, especially indigenous cinema.

Short Film Saturday: Frosty Man and the BMX Kid

Firstly, welcome to the first short film Saturday of the new year. I wanted to have a new one up last weekend, but amongst other things having all my BAM posts needing to go up, and my Best of the Year in general and horror took out much of my screening time.

However, I do want to try and make up for the loss and will try and get two films up today. The first of which will leverage of the BAM Awards some and features a 2012, James Rolleston (Best Performance by a Young Actor in a Leading Role for Boy).

Frosty Man and the BMX Kid is a very quick, quirky, funny tale featuring some heavy Kiwi accents (so listen close) and a mysterious stranger. This was a finalist in the Your Big Break Competitions run by New Zealand Tourism.

Review- Boy

Te Aho Aho Eketone-Whitu, James Rolleston and Taika Waititi in Boy (Unison Films)

That Shakespeare line about names comes up often when I think about films, because at times a title can either say it all or say very little. A film entitled simply Boy can be seen as kind of a middle ground, it invites further investigation. A seemingly nondescript word for a title it turns out that Boy is actually what our protagonist is most commonly referred to, hence the title is eponymous.

What stands out in the early-going, as Boy (James Rolleston) introduces us to his world with an embellished front-of-class presentation, is that the film can be said to have some flair and originality. There are flashes of a fantasized life both in live action and in child-like animation. What it brought to mind was Submarine, which made me cautious. There are great things going on in the first half of that film (a film too many callously over-simplify) but that spark and originality only carries it so far as I feel it gets bogged down. Here quite the opposite happens, while the quirkier elements are more intermittent as the film progresses the elements do get to the heart of the characters, and help to develop the comedy and drama inherent in the story. They are a boon to the film and a segue into the world.

The film is a tale of a father’s estrangement from his family, his son’s desire to have him around, to reconcile with him and coming to terms with the realities of one’s family. Given some of the facts of the story it could be too easy to take the story to a melodramatic or maudlin place but this film never does that. This is, of course, a credit to the screenplay but also to the actors. The first of note being Taika Waititi, who not only plays the father but is the film’s writer and director, what makes this fact even more impressive is that I didn’t know that beforehand and found that not only was his comic persona a rival to a Paul Rudd character but he also plays the more dramatic portions of the story very well. Add that to all the behind the scenes work he did, being the heart and soul of the film, and it’s truly brilliant and awe-inspiring.

The equilibrium of tone allows this film to have quite a brisk pace, which makes it an enjoyable watch regardless of the tonal shift in the story. Things time out just right and no section of the film seems disproportional.

While the film is about Boy and it very much focuses on his character’s arc, his younger brother Rocky (Te Aho Aho Eketone-Whitu) has a very significant subplot. Eketone-Whitu’s performance is one which is much more silent than Rolleston’s but every bit as effective. He is quiet because he feels like an outsider and due to certain facts about his character is struggling to embrace not only his place in the family but also who he is.

Which leads me to another brilliant touch this film has, Rocky’s conflict is with his past and his brother, in part it makes him quieter and kinder and also leads him to bond with a character they refer to as Weirdo (Waihori Shortland). To not discuss it too much, part of what makes it so great is not just the natural, logical connection they share but it takes a character that seems like he’ll be excess and makes him essential. Similarly, Boy has quite a journey in his tale but his certain isolation and conflict with his father makes him a bit angrier, so his personal connection is to fantasy and his idolatry of Michael Jackson, which considering it’s set in 1984 is a logical choice.

I’ve written quite a bit about endings, not in the broader sense as in happy or sad, open or resolved; but rather in the minute sense of picking the precise moment and the precise note. This film ends perfectly. It ends with a punchline but also with the realization of who their father is and embracing that for better or worse. The tale is truly complete and the film is over. Both boys have gone through very different reactions to their father’s return to their life and their emotions have run the gamut, but they’ve reached a peace with what the unchangeable status quo is.

Boy is an excellent film, which illustrates best how specificity translates to universality. This is a film set in 1984 on the east coast of New Zealand about a Māori family yet you can be on any continent in any corner of the world and enjoy this film and take something away from it. Why? Because it’s true and connects to something innate in all people, which makes it great.