by NEVIL GIBSON
It is customary to describe a group of films that have common characteristics as a “genre”, and it can now be fairly claimed that this country has one it can claim as unique.
The modern Maori genre has burgeoned in recent years and has peaked with The Dark Horse (Transmission- NZ Film Commission), which opened this year’s International Film Festivals in Auckland and Wellington.
It went into general release on July 31 and comes with a well-bred pedigree.
The modern Maori genre started with the violent urban settings of Once Were Warriors (1994) and its sequel, What Becomes of the Brokenhearted? (1999). Crooked Earth (2001) explored similar themes of drug use in a rural setting.
The more soft-hearted side emerged with the feel-good Whale Rider (2002) and Boy (2012), both of which became box office hits. More recently, you would include Mt Zion (2013), The Pa Boys (2014) and Fantail, reviewed here three issues ago.
On the screen, the genre has created some international stars such as Temuera Morrison,
Keisha Castle-Hughes and Cliff Curtis. Possibly about to join them is the still teenaged
James Rolleston, who first appeared in Boy as well as The Dark Horse and the forthcoming
tribal period drama The Dead Lands.
Behind the scenes, the genre has attracted talented directors such as Lee Tamahori, Niki Caro, Taika Waititi and Sam Pillsbury, most of whom have made international films as well.
The Dark Horse fits somewhere between Once Were Warriors and Boy. Set in Gisborne, in a gang-dominated urban community, it depicts the lifestyle of an underclass that is virtually unknown to many middle-class New Zealanders.
Although some of it will be disturbing, even shocking, to unprepared audiences, it also aspirational with a strong message.
But it is not preachy and the producer-director team James Napier Robertson (who also
wrote the script) and Tom Hern have gone for impact — they are both former actors. That’s
where the casting of Curtis, who beefed up considerably for the lead role, and Rolleston
Curtis plays Genesis Potini, a real-life speed-chess champion whose enthusiasm inspires a group of young people with the game’s appeal as a substitute for a video game.
As the film opens, he is released after several years in mental institutions, keeping
his bipolar disorder at bay through medication. He moves in with his gang-patched and
reluctant brother, who is grooming his teenage son, Mana (Rolleston), for a life as a criminal.
Fitting into this community is not easy, specially when Potini wants to coach the youngsters so they can enter a national chess championship in Auckland.
Conflict emerges when Potini attempts to lure Mana away from the gang environment and show him an alternative path in life.
This is not unlike many Hollywood productions in which underdogs are pitted against against the odds. But what makes the difference is the distinctly New Zealand environment and the lack of gloss, which usually envelopes overseas productions.
Rating: Mature audiences (violence, offensive language and drug use); 124 minutes.
by NEVIL GIBSON