MAHANA. Temuera Morrison, Nancy Brunning, Te Kohe Tuhaka, Stephen Lovatt, John Leigh, Akuhata Keefe. Directed by Lee Tamahori. 103 minutes. Rated M (Mature themes and violence).

 ‘Mahana’ is set in Poverty Bay, a rural part of New Zealand, in the 1960s. In the opening scene, two large Maori families race in their crowded sedans to a funeral. The eventual winners are the Mahana family, led by the domineering Tamihana (Temuera Morrison, towering). Tamihana offers his condolences to Collins, the son of the deceased, though not without trying to mix in a little business. He reminds Collins of Old Collins’ longstanding sheep shearing contract with the Tamihana clan. The losing family are the Poatas, led by Rupeni (Jim Moriarty), who have an ongoing feud with the Mahanas in both business and personal spheres. It’s not clear at first where this rivalry began, but it feels like the kind of ambiguity that will be cleared up before the credits roll.

Back on the Mahana farm, Tamihana doles out duties to the three work teams, who are shearing and performing other services on various local farms. Most of the women stay home, cooking, cleaning, doing laundry. Teenager Simeon (Akuhata Keefe, one to watch), the youngest male in the clan, must stay too, much to his chagrin. Simeon is put to work as well, mucking out the cow sheds, chopping wood, fuelling the generators, slaughtering and butchering livestock. Unlike the others, he does not fear his grandfather, only following his orders because he’s constantly reminded by other family members that he should, his father Joshua (Regan Taylor) and mother Huria (Maria Walker) among them. Nonetheless, there’s a strong sense of rebellion in Simeon that will inevitably bubble to the surface as in many coming-of-age tales.

When Simeon goes to school each day, Poppy Poata (Yvonne Porter) is perched on the backseat of the bus. There are a few illicit glances exchanged, and it feels as though a Montagues and Capulets story will develop. In fact, Simeon’s awakening as a young man is more about questioning the role of his grandfather than any romantic developments, and it is in the domestic sphere that his choices have the greatest repercussions. After Simeon and Tamihana have a heated argument at the dinner table, Joshua stands up to his raging father. Tamihana immediately banishes Joshua and his family from his land, though Tamihana’s quiet wife Ramona (Nancy Brunning) steps in and offers Joshua her dilapidated house on a block of land nearby. Not even Tamihana can pull rank in a decision about her landholdings, and so Joshua and his family make the move.

The story is unashamedly, almost proudly old-fashioned, as Simeon, his folks and his sisters do their best to turn the small, run-down property into a liveable situation. Along the way there are shearing competitions, terrible accidents, first kisses, terminal illnesses, and grand speeches. The plot, drawn from the novel ‘Bulibasha: King Of The Gypsies’ by Witi Ihimaera, moves in unexpected directions, but as soon as these directions are clear their final outcome is often predictable. For example, when Poppy is introduced as a forbidden love interest, we know (or at least strongly suspect) that she and Simeon will shift a little closer from ‘potential’ couple to ‘real’ couple. This makes it both engaging and a little cloying. There is one out and out surprise that comes with the retelling of how Tamihana and Ramona became a couple, and director Lee Tamahori stages it in an extremely unsettling manner – to say more is to disservice the film, but it is certainly the most harrowing the film ever gets.

Tamahori, best known for his debut feature ‘Once Were Warriors’ or his Bond entry ‘Die Another Day’, returns to his Kiwi roots in ‘Mahana’. He clearly has a passion for the Maori culture (his own father was Maori). The best bits of Mahuia Bridgman-Cooper and Tama Waipara’s score include a woman’s gorgeous floating vocals, evocative of New Zealand’s stunning landscape. The occasional forays in Maori language are included in a matter of fact way and are left un-subtitled. It is very much a Kiwi film, and like recent hits from nation (‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’, ‘Boy’) it is feel-good entertainment steeped with family and sense of place, and served by a terrific cast.

Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

Out December 8.

Entertainment One Films.

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