One thing I enjoy about foreign films from the 80s; for the most part they tend to not be as “of the 80s” as American films of the era. Case in point is Utu, a film from New Zealand that is, admittedly, also a period piece, technically taking place in the late 1800s, which helps the whole “non-80s film” aspect greatly. The film itself, however, doesn’t really offer much that I haven’t already gotten from other list films, though this does have some nice production value for a film that was so difficult to find (thanks again to Chip). Ultimately, this wasn’t too bad for one of the rarer list films, but neither was it a welcome surprise.
Utu is the Maori word for vengeance, and it is this concept that drives the main character of the film, Te Wheke. A warrior in the British forces, he comes across a trio of lost soldiers, and together they arrive at a Maori village, burned and destroyed by the British, with all the citizens shot and killed, including Te Wheke’s uncle. Knowing what has happened, he promptly shoots the remaining soldiers, leaving one alive to convey his message of oncoming retribution. The rest of the film is the conflict between Te Wheke and his band of rebels, and the British forces, who often are unsure of how they are supposed to be fighting. The film itself is made juuust competently enough to get by; there’s some sequences that will impress you with the fact that they pretty much took place exactly as you see them, and there are other moments that will make you wince slightly at the campiness of the story. What makes the film work as much as it does, though, is the culture; this film is thoroughly steeped in the culture of the Maori tribes, and tries to convey as much of it as possible through the screen, and it largely succeeds. This display of culture, however, comes at the price of an engaging story. There are many superfluous scenes, and most of the story consists of the British and Te Wheke’s forces clashing in various ways, and little else. Now, some of the superfluous scenes do have some merit, in that they display just how much the white men look down on the Maori, and this film shares much in common with other like films on the list, like Jimmie Blacksmith and Rabbit-Proof Fence. Most of the scenes, however, seem to be there to pad the running time, which for me is rarely ever a good thing. One other standout is the character of Mr. Williamson, played by Bruno Lawrence. He’s the guy who tries to fight off Te Wheke’s forces near the beginning of the film, and has his wife shot and house destroyed, and spends the rest of the film trying to track Te Wheke down. Whenever Lawrence is on screen, the film seems alight, and he carries his character with weight and substance behind his face the whole time, and it was a true pleasure to watch.
I was really on the fence about Utu through most of it, and all the way through the film’s conclusion, I never ended up on one side or the other; I was just left there, on that fence. I could view that as a good thing, that I didn’t think any worse of Utu than I could’ve, or as a bad thing, that the film left me so indecisive because it couldn’t accomplish what it wanted to fully enough. If I were to decide between the two, however, that would swing me to one side, something I’m still not sure I have the conclusiveness to do. I also had some doubts as to why this was on the list when there were already enough films that represented what Utu was trying to do, but the recent edition’s culling of Utu seems to be enough of an answer for me. If you’ve seen like-minded films and enjoyed them enough to want more, Utu should certainly be on your list; otherwise, if you’ve seen films like this before, and once is enough, this will have little to offer you.
Arbitrary Rating: 7/10