New Zealand feature film Once Were Warriors, directed by Lee Tamahori, has a brilliant and captivating beginning that immediately engages the audience’s attention. Both the beginning and the ending contribute greatly to the film’s popular success and have been made specifically to introduce motifs and symbols, key characters, relationships and conflicts.
How is success defined? Once Were Warriors could be considered to have been a success in many ways, not just by it’s commercial value. Firstly, there is the academic success of the film. It portrayed a tragic and violent family cycle to other New Zealanders, of whom many believed that we lived in a violence free country. The film was very successful in showing that not all people are privy to equal opportunities in life. Secondly, the aesthetic success was prevalent as it was very pleasing and true to the eye. Also, there was a success at a personal judgement level in the way of newspaper and magazine reviews. However, the film’s success, in every aspect, was due to the beginning and ending of the film.
The beginning of Once Were Warriors focuses on a wide angle shot of a billboard featuring a beautiful landscape. This shot is used to deliberately enhance the stark contrast of the urban slum environment that the Maori people in the movie are inhibiting. A pan shot is then used to descend on to the real scene, full of smoke and debris in South Auckland. Director Lee Tamahori describes it as “the most hellish environment you could imagine.” These shots not only introduce the setting, time and place of the film but they also set the mood and atmosphere. The reason the beginning made the movie successful was because the film because the film opened with real, tough, strong graphics that hit home to the audience the extent of the poverty in the urban ‘slum’.
It is immediately obvious that characters play a key role in the opening scenes of the film. The Heke family, who were the main characters, were introduced with mid shots filmed in contrasting settings that helped the audience quickly grasp on to their personality. The love Beth has for Jake is shown at the beginning of the film so that the audience can understand why she stays with him. However, conflicts are also portrayed in the opening scenes. The close up shots of Jake’s fight at the pub, his argument with Beth and Boogie’s attempt at being an outlaw all captivate how much of a role the characters have in creating a good beginning.
Key symbols in the film, such as food, are expressed at the start to show how food brings the family together through dysfunction, good times and punishment. Jake uses food to break the news about losing his job to Beth. He believes the parcel of ‘Kai Moana’ (seafood) will make Beth happy. The symbol of urban decay is also prevalent during the opening and it helps to make it interesting to the audience.
Sound, used extensively during the beginning of Once Were Warriors, introduces musical themes into the film. The Jimmy Hendrix type rap and techno music was used to introduce the film as that is the type of music that the Maori people listen to and adore. Strong themes of adversity, courage and love show through during the ending to contrast the violence, poverty and loss at the beginning of the film. This creates an uneven or asymmetrical balance to the film, hence giving it an unusual and interesting audience appeal. The wistful sound of the ‘purwihua’ or Maori flute combined with the eerie sound that was created every time violence was about to enter, gave the film a good beginning. This sound is played when Jake first beats Beth during the beginning of the film.
The beginning is crucial in the film, Once Were Warriors. The harsh, hard-hitting beginning full of power and emotion make for a very successful film. The film is one which the New Zealand public as well as wider audiences can relate, for violence happens in all races and cultures. This is part of the reason why Once Were Warriors was so successful with so many New Zealanders.
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