New Zealand's director Lee Tamahori
debuted with a powerful domestic drama,
Once Were Warriors (1994), adapted from a novel by Alan Duff,
about a Maori family that lives in a city,
notable for its brutal, documentary-like realism in the tradition of
The film opens in an urban area taken over by black gangs
A woman in the country side reads a fairy tale to her children.
Back in the ghetto, a police raid takes place.
Back in the country home, the head of the family comes home with a special
present and behaves like a loving husband to his wife.
Beth and Jake are Maoris who live in a city of New Zealand with five children.
Their teenage daughter, Grace, brings food to a homeless kid who sleeps under a bridge.
One of the teenage kids arrested at the raid is delivered by the police to Beth:
it is her son Boogie.
At a Maori party Jake witnesses a brawl.
Jake is unemployed and seems to devote his life to drinking with friends.
He causes the next brawl, and his level of brutality easily beats the
When Beth arrives, Jake dances and sings romantically with her.
But minutes later he is beating her savagely. And then he rapes her.
The children can hear everything upstairs but all they can do is cry,
hugging their elder sister.
The following morning Grace cleans up the mess, while her mother can barely
stand up and speak.
Their elder son, Nig, leaves the family and is initiated to a face-tattoing
gang through a bloody ritual. Basically, he has found a new family.
Jake does not talk to him, part because of male rivarly and part because of
disappointment that Nig does not want to emulate his father (for what his
father is worth).
Their teenage son Boogie ends up in a state institution run by a Maori himself.
All it takes is a bit of money and good mood and Beth is happy again with
her husband. They go on a picnic with Grace and the two little children.
Under the guidance of the Maori guardian of the prison, Boogie actually
rediscovers the pride of his ancestal people.
The idyllic day with Jake ends in misery for Beth because Jake prefers to
go drink with his buddies than go visit Boogie with the children.
Jake and the children have to walk back home because Jake won't even drive them.
One night their uncle rapes Grace, the sweet one of the family.
He asks her to shut up and, surprisingly, she does. She runs out
of the house and goes to see her homeless friend. But the moment he touches
her, she runs away disgusted, no matter how sorrowful he looks. Grace wanders
through the city alone. When she comes home, she finds Jake drinking with
friends. Jake screams at her and almost beats her for refusing to kiss her
uncle. Terrified, Grace hangs herself.
When she goes home after spending the night with Grace at the hospital,
Beth finds Jake drunk and asleep. Beth tells him that she has decided to
move out with the children and return to their ancestral home.
Beth and the children bury Grace in the village, and then restart a family,
even the tattooed gangster and the homeless kid,
while Jake is drinking as usual with the "uncle".
The children ask Beth to read a fairy tale from the book that Grace used to
read. Beth opens it and reads something terrible in it. She coldly tells the
elder son Nig to get in the car. They drive back to the city, to the bar
where Jake is drinking as usual with his friends.
Beth accuses the uncle in front of everybody. Jake is ready to defend his
brother and beat Beth. But Nig, full of hatred for his father, stops him
and hands him the book where Grace wrote the story of her rape.
Furious, Jake attacks his brother, ready to kill him. But Beth is no longer
interested in all that violence. She simply walks out on them. Jake in vain
screams that she will be back: he has nothing that Beth wants.
Beth and the children go back home, their ancestral home, and leave Jake to
compete for survival in the city.
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