UTU (1983)

Dir. Geoff Murphy
104 minutes

A remarkable film that is a worthy selection for the 1001 book. While I’m not sure how many of you will like this (I think most of you will think it’s OK at least), I recommend it.

The film takes place in 19th Century New Zealand. A Maori, Te Wheke (Anzac Wallace), leaves the British army to lead a revolt against them after seeing a village destroyed by the British. The film is complex having multiple characters which the filmmakers do not portray in black-and-white terms–something that makes this film remarkable. The only other film that did something similar that came to mind was LA Confidential. It’s a thoughtful adventure tale with action sequences (OK), but also an examination of issues involving conflict between indigenous people and Europeans. This would be an excellent film for older Hawai’i students studying Native Hawaiian issues or a great film for communities in Hawai’i to watch and discuss.

I like complex characters that are neither completely good or completely evil, but I feel that making characters like this in an action/adventure film is very difficult. You want to unambiguously root for the good guy and equally hate the villian. Also, how do you create a satisfying resolution to the film? But UTU manages to pull this off, particularly the resolution!

The film is also noteworthy for the way the filmmakers avoid two common moves in films of this sort: 1.) romantic and glorified depiction of indigenous people; 2.) an “enlightened” white man that goes “native.” (See Dances With Wolves.) You have whites in the film that seemed to have lived in New Zealand a long time: Lt. Scott (born in New Zealand?) and Williamson, a farmer who can speak Maori. The way they respect the Maori seems more humane and normal–their interest is familiar and natural versus based a romantic curiosity of the exotic. They’re like local Caucasians who have grown up in Hawai’i. and embraced they culture. They’re ties to the culture are just as strong as Native Hawaiians.

On the Maori side, we sympathize with Te Wheke’s desire to fight the British, but he also commits heinous acts–the murder of Williamson’s wife and attempted murder of Williamson himself; wrongly killing two Maoris. Probably the most interesting Maori characters is Wiremu, who is a corporal in the British military. He’s extremely intelligent and capable, but it is unclear why he continues to stay in the British army. He seems to sensitive to not care about what the British are doing to the Maori. Anyway, the actor playing him, Wi Kuki Kaa, deserved an Academy Award nomination at least.

I must also mention the ending. I loved the haka(?) by Wiremu and the his revelation about his identify. Te Wheke’s speech is also very moving. The fact that the film successfully condemn’s Te Wheke to death and yet honors him at the same time is no small feat.

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