Once Were Warriors [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Second Sight
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (10th March 2018).
The Film

Best Foreign Film Award: Robin Scholes (won) - Australian Film Institute, 1995
Anicaflash Prize: Lee Tamahori (won) - Venice Film Festival, 1994
Audience Award: Lee Tamahori (won) - Rotterdam International Film Festival, 1995
Film Award (Best Film): Robin Scholes (won), (Best Performance in a Dramatic Role: Male): Temuera Morrison (won), (Best Performance in a Supporting Role: Female): Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell (won), (Best Juvenile Performance): Taungaroa Emile (won), ( Best Film Score): Murray Grindlay and Murray McNabb (won), (Best Director): Lee Tamahori (won), (Best Screenplay): Riwia Brown (won), (Best Editing): Michael Horton (won), and (Best Soundtrack): Kit Rollings, Ray Beentjes, Michael Hedges, and Graham Morris (won), and (Best Performance in a Dramatic Role: Female): Rena Owen (nominated) - New Zealand Film and TV Awards, 1994

Beth Heke (The Last Witch Hunter's Rena Owen) struggles to hold her family together as husband Jake "The Muss" (Green Lantern's Temuera Morrison) is content to live off unemployment getting drunk in the local pub with his buddies during the day and continuing the party at home after hours eldest son Nig (Broken English's Julian Arahanga) has left home and found a new family in a violent street gang, teenage daughter Grace (Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell) finds escape by making up stories based on Māori myths and hanging out with homeless teenager Toot (Shannon Williams) who lives in a car beneath an overpass, teenage son Boogie (Whale Rider's Taungaroa Emile) is keeping bad company, while youngest children Polly (Rachael Morris Jr.) and Huata (Joseph Kairau) are shielded as much as possible from family upheaval primarily by Grace. When a frustrated Beth gets "lippy" with Jake in front of his buddies and others he has brought home from the pub the night before Boogie is to appear in juvenile court, Jake explodes and brutally beats her as others fearfully look on and Grace, Boogie, Polly, and Huata cower upstairs in the dark. Thinking that her physical appearance will just make things worse than they are for Boogie in court, Beth sends Grace to accompany him. Aware of what Boogie's home life is like, case manager Bennett (Rapa Nui's George Henare) recommends him to social welfare custody. Beth is horrified to lose custody of her son but an unconcerned Jake thinks the experience will harden him ("You're going to have to take a chain saw to those apron strings, girl"). In spite of Beth's resolve that things have to change, Jake continues to disregard her and even blindsides her by agreeing that they should make a day of visiting Boogie as a family and renting a car for the outing (only to make a stop at the pub on the way and forget about his family). While Nig's new family has his back when he runs into his father and Bennett shows Boogie the real toughness that exists within his Māori heritage, Grace becomes angry at her mother's powerlessness ("It's just a woman's lot, that's all") and withdraws from the family. The stage is set for tragedy when Jake's buddy "Uncle Bully" (The Piano's Cliff Curtis) and Beth must make a hard choice to protect those who are really important to her.

Based on the novel by Alan Duff, Once Were Warriors looks at perspectives on what it means to be Māori in urban New Zealand through the eyes of the Heke family living in a depressed suburban neighborhood in Otara, Auckland. The novel was generally popular in New Zealand with general (white, middle-class) audiences but not so much the Māori it sought to depict or the Māori academics who feared that the novel and then the film would reinforce negative stereotypes. The resulting film would go a similar international success as the earlier New Zealand/Australian/French award-winner The Piano, a period drama which featured Māori as supporting characters). While the Heke family is certainly not the most positive representation of Māori, the characters embody diverse attitudes towards their heritage. Jake who only knows violence and wields it against enemies, friends, and family alike, thinks the more traditional Māori are living in a past which represents slavery to him. He is also resentful of Beth's family who he believes look down upon him and sarcastically refers to Beth as their "royal highness." Grace makes up stories based on Māori myths of which she actually knows little since Beth is ambivalent about her past, having become estranged from her family by her love for Jake. Polly and Huata equate Māori myths, as related to them by Grace, with fairy tales. The gang to which Nig belongs wears traditional Māori warrior tattoos and their only good point seems to their loyalty to Nig and one another in contrast to his father Jake, while Boogie says of Nig's tattoo stays that he wears his "on the inside" once he has embraced his heritage. Jake is a charismatic monster, and early on when he and Beth perform a duet, her love for him being enough to her to keep hoping that things will change is just as believable as her climactic realization that he will always be a slave to his own anger which becomes impotent when she no longer cares and when there is no one or nothing on which he can vent it. The film spawned a lesser known sequel as What Becomes of the Broken Hearted? that went undistributed in America or the United Kingdom. A veteran of television commercials with only a trio of episodes of The Ray Bradbury Theatre under his belt, director Lee Tamahori would head to Hollywood the following year to helm more generic efforts like xXx: State of the Union and Next as well as the James Bond installment Die Another Day.


Released theatrically by Entertainment Film Distributors in the UK and by New Line Cinema's Fine Line Features in the US, Once Were Warriors was treated rather shabbily in the UK on DVD from Entertainment in Video with a fullscreen transfer and 2.0 surround audio while the US release from sported an anamorphic transfer, DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 Surround tracks, as well as a director's commentary and behind the scenes featurette. Australia was the first territory out of the gate with a Blu-ray release in 2009 carrying over the commentary and some new extras, but it featured a 1080i50 transfer. Germany's Mad Dimension followed in mid-2016 with a three-disc mediabook edition featuring an English-friendly 1080p transfer on the Blu-ray and DVD as well a bonus Blu-ray disc featuring Arahanga's restrospective documentray and a new interview with Owen. Film Movement followed in the US but only supplemented the feature with a short behind the scenes featurette and a booklet.

Second Sight's Blu-ray features what appears to be the same 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.78:1 widescreen transfer (with windowboxed credits) as the US release which is refreshingly a strong looking rendition of a film that looked a bit hazy and overly warm on DVD. Here, the skintones seem more variegated and are not distorted by the harsh sunlight or the cool blues of the night scenes or the neons of the bar scenes. Wide angle lenses are used in a number of compositions that lend depth to shots of the characters poised beneath the oppressive landscapes and skylines while some of the softer long shots appear to be more about compressed depth-of-field than noise reduction softening detail that is not there to begin with. The overall look of the film is quite a contrast to cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh's work on The Piano.


Audio options include the Dolby Stereo track in LPCM 2.0 and the 5.1 remix in DTS-HD Master Audio that utilizes the surround channels and bass well for a film time just before Dolby Digital was introduced and when it was used primarily for action and genre films with the few 5.1 art and independent films making more use of the front channels. Optional English SDH subtitles are provided that transcribe rather than translate Maori song lyrics.


"Once Were Warriors: Where Are They Now?" (52:20) is the Arahanga-directed retrospective documentary in which the actor reunites the actors for a family reunion. The first part follows him as he tracks down his co-stars and they describe their lives before the film, becoming involved with the production, and their lives since. Now living in Los Angeles, Owen recalls that she went to London to attend medical school and became a junkie before cleaning up and going to drama school. Morrison recalls that there was skepticism about casting him since he was well-known as a soap actor and he had to train hard to convince the producers that he could physically embody the role. They, along with the now grown child actors including Kairau who shot up to 6'3" and now works as a dairy farmer then gather for a roundtable recollection of shooting the film. The disc also includes "Directing the Warriors" (29:11) which is described as a new interview with Tamahori. The interview is indeed new, but the stories are not. While the anecdotes about the beginnings of the project, the shooting, and the reception do not change, Tamahori has presumably discussed this film so much from the audio commentary on the older editions to various interviews for television and bonus features that he repeats some of them almost verbatim as seen in the cutaways to a separate interview and some archival video in the Arahanga documentary. He recalls the popularity of the novel but being unsure whether he wanted to make it his feature debut until he was worn down by producer Robin Scholes (The Tattooist) and brought in Māori screenwriter Riwia Brown (The Legend of Johnny Lingo) to adapt the novel. Knowing that it would be a challenge to keep the audience engaged through such a grim series of events in the narrative, he knew that an attractive cast was essential as well as editing that kept things moving. He also admits to taking creative license with the visuals, poking fun at his conception of the street gang. The film's trailer is also included. (2:07)



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