New Zealand's rugged beauty is hardly a secret after Lord of the Rings, but it's not the easiest location for filming due to heavy rainfall (the negative side of such a lush landscape). However, director Sam Pillsbury lived many years in New Zealand and his first movie, The Scarecrow, was filmed on location in Thames, New Zealand in 1982. Having lived among the Maori for many years, he was intrigued with telling a contemporary story about their struggles; thus, Crooked Earth came to fruition.
Pillsbury's creation certainly has cinematic beauty, but still camera images panning New Zealand's gnarled coastline, verdant green forests, and rocky waterfalls would all mesmerize. So, some may feel the 108 minutes of mediocre melodrama are a small price to pay for a stunning travelogue. Along the way you can see glimpses of Maori culture, though it's puzzling that Pillsbury used the 2.5 million dollar budget to create such a trite fictional story if he's really committed to exposing the political and socio-economic plight of the Maoris. Why not film a documentary that would get some play on public broadcasting systems, and maybe even get some distribution through video and DVD sales? Instead, Crooked Earth is not likely to come to your area, be played on television, or hit the retail video market. Although it was released briefly in New Zealand, it has only played a handful of small film festivals in the United States. It's no big loss, however, despite some redeeming value.
Veteran actor Temuera Morrison, who starred in Once Were Warriors (a far superior tale about the Maoris) and recently in Star Wars 2, carries the film as well as he can, but the tissue paper-thin script feels more like work for a television series on contemporary Maori issues than it does for a full length feature. Just a glance at the writing credits signals trouble, as do most scripts by committee. Waihoroi Shorthand serves as Maori consultant, and four others are credited as writers.
Morrison plays Captain Will Bastion, who conveniently has been discharged from service in the Balkans precisely when his father (a Maori chief) has passed away in Raukura, New Zealand. Bastion hasn't been home for nearly twenty years, but he is expected to take on the tribal role of chief as the eldest son. Being away from his cultural roots for many years, he isn't so sure that he wants to take on the position.
On the other hand, Will's younger brother, Kahu (Lawrence Makoare), eagerly seizes the opportunity to become the official leader and abruptly announces his claims to chiefdom during his father's wake. Bitter about the government's treaty violations, he has his own rebel agenda in mind regarding tribal lands and has engaged a variety of thugs and dope dealers to increase his influence. With wall paintings of Che Guevera and Malcolm X as backdrops, Kahu balances his corrupt ways by indoctrinating the local Maori children about the evils of the land-thieving government, but he's still little more than a politically corrupt stereotype.
Complicating Kahu's plans are his now ever-present older brother, and his beautiful seventeen-year-old daughter, Ripeka (Jaime Passier-Armstrong), who unwittingly falls in love with Kahu's dope gardener. While cinematically ravishing (they do find opportunities for her to bare her breasts), she hopelessly drowns in a cliched script that has her character travel unbelievably all over the roadmap.
And that's the main problem with the film. With noble intentions, the script attempts to work in so many ideas about contemporary Maori life that it collapses on itself, despite some fine individual efforts and competent cinematography. The filmmakers basically rely on over-the-top oratory and set pieces that cremate the flesh and blood characters, leaving only ashen traces of reality to make their political points. For a much better melodrama involving South Sea island life, check out Tabu (by Robert J. Flaherty and F.W. Murneau)—proof that a silent feature has far more eloquent dialogue than a preachy contemporary sound picture.
Despite its weaknesses, Crooked Earth contains beautiful New Zealand scenery and a few cultural charms. The traditional Maori Haka dance, for example, captures an animated greeting that includes comical facial expressions and sticking out the tongue. Reportedly, the film flopped pretty badly in New Zealand—likely the locals didn't take well to stereotypical characters in a clunky script that pretentiously attempts to show the complexity of the situation. But its banal composition and simplistic moral code make it suitable television fodder, and the networks traditionally show far worse entertainment.