New Zealand cinema is still largely unknown. If I ask you to name a New Zealand film, you’re almost certainly going to start with Lord of the Rings and probably end with The Hobbit. The whole Middle Earth saga was shot in New Zealand with a New Zealand crew (including director Peter Jackson), but the funding (American) and the cast (mostly American, Australian and British) means that any attempt to define it as a piece of New Zealand cinema is fuzzy at best.
The country’s cinema industry is small and most unambiguously Kiwi films have a tiny budget and legs too short to carry them overseas. The better examples of international successes would be critical darlings such as as The Piano (1993), Once Were Warriors (1994) and Whale Rider (2002), as well as the powerful and under-appreciated In My Father’s Den (2004).
Top of the Lake
The Piano is possibly New Zealand’s biggest critical success and director Jane Campion is still well-known today. Her most recent project is a fascinating mini-series called Top of the Lake (2013), set in New Zealand but largely funded by the BBC and with an international cast, including American lead Elisabeth Moss (The West Wing, Mad Men).
Top of the Lake was critically acclaimed and it’s an engrossing show about a detective’s personal quest to find a missing girl in hyper-rural New Zealand. In a remote village on the South Island, the police can still turn a blind eye to a man’s suspicious death, while everyone is keeping secrets and violence almost seems to be a way of life.
The show is quite wonderfully bleak, both in its beautifully austere setting and in its often disturbing subject matter. It brings to mind True Detective’s masterful use of landscape, but its true sibling show is Denmark’s The Killing. Both shows share strong female protagonists who are resolute in their professional tenacity, even as their personal lives fall to pieces. Both shows are deeply sceptical about good people, instead seeking to demonstrate that everyone has dangerous flaws. Both shows are dark in their palate and their tone, and deliberately unsatisfying in terms of narrative and moral resolution.
Interestingly, Top of the Lake also shares similar flaws to The Killing. False attempts to ratchet up tension strike discordant notes amidst the beautifully understated drama, and both suffer from implausibly and unnecessarily bombastic endings. Top of the Lake’s editing is occasionally jarring, undercutting dramatic tension for no obvious reason and ratcheting it up in odd places. Whether deliberate or not (the show had to be edited in two completely different ways, so possibly not) it does serve to heighten the atmosphere and increase the feeling of ethereal unease. Unfortunately, the climax does seem rather rushed and stockpiles twists as if the creators lost faith in their story right at the end.
Yes, this is a show about mystery, but it’s real strength is its characters, each one of them flawed and confused. In a lesser show, one might suspect the script of inconsistent characterisation, but in Top of the Lake it seems deliberate: these people really don’t know how to live their lives. It has a very different sensibility to most Western shows, which makes it simultaneously very peculiar and very powerful. It makes no attempt to explain its themes; indeed, the one self-styled guru of the story mostly spouts total nonsense, as if to caution the audience against trying to find neatly-packaged meaning.
And yet this is not a show afraid to tackle thought-provoking ideas. While none of the characters are perfect, most of the women are trying to do good, and most of the men are fucking it up. This is a strong indictment of rape culture and men’s easy complicity in sexual abuse, but the script is smart enough not to preach. Instead, this is a complex, sometimes difficult work that often mesmerises and certainly deserves to be seen.
Back in the realm of cinema, one of the more successful Kiwi filmmakers of recent years is Taika Waititi, whose debut feature Eagle vs Shark (2007) was given a limited release in both the USA and the UK. He followed up this with Boy (2010), which received considerable attention both within New Zealand and internationally.
Eagle vs Shark is an offbeat indie comedy that aims for quirky but does so using the Generic Quirkiness Bible (revised for the 21st century by Napoleon Dynamite) that means it paradoxically ends up being rather paint-by-numbers. Geeky misfit Lily pines after geeky misfit Jarrod (Flight of the Conchord’s Jemaine) and the two of them have awkward conversations in awkward scenarios, accentuated by the New Zealand school of deadpan and the Wes Anderson school of flat framing. It’s fitfully funny but the forced oddball surrealness is rather wearing, and the film suffers from having two distinctly unlikeable protagonists. Jarrod is a selfish prick and Lily’s unconditional devotion consequently comes off as rather pathetic. As an intriguing piece of indie cinema, it’s certainly not bad, but it can be awfully trying.
Far, far more successful is Boy, a quite beautiful film about an 11-year-old Maori boy who looks after his siblings and cousins in rural New Zealand until the return of his father. The film is consistently hilarious in its first half and consistently moving in its second. Eagle vs Shark and Boy share a focus on people over plot, and a sense of whimsy and life’s natural absurdity. However, where the former has grating caricatures, the latter has real and fascinating characters, drawn with nuance and consistency, each with clear strengths and foibles. Where Eagle vs Shark’s comedy feels squeezed from a sponge, Boy’s humour falls like delightful rain.
Boy is a strong piece of film-making, with a superb script that could serve as a case study for anyone wanting to understand how to write characters. There is virtually no expository dialogue; characterisation is conveyed visually and through implication. This is such a fundamental tenet of cinema that it’s sad that one can still be surprised to see it done right. In this regard, Boy is well worth celebrating and its director worth supporting.
Thematically, Boy is broadly similar to this year’s powerful Boyhood. Both films are about transition, and what it means to be a boy, and particularly what it means to no longer be a boy. However, Boy is lighter (and shorter) and covers its themes with a smile. Where Boyhood spirals outwards in scope, Boy’s focus stays narrow and intimate. Boyhood may still be the better film (possibly the best of 2014), but Boy comes highly recommended as an all-too-rare piece of genuinely Kiwi and genuinely excellent cinema.