Utu is set during the Maori Wars of the 1850s and is the first contemporary film about this period in New Zealand history, although it definitely shows the influence of Rudall Hayward's earlier epics. It set out on the difficult task of keeping historical accuracy whilst incorporating modern day sensibilities. Murphy's basic message, that by working together the Maori and Pakeha will succeed in forming a better New Zealand, has obvious inferences to the modern day racial tension; the film being released around the time of the controversial Springbok tour of 1981, which had led to widespread violence. This message, however, is by no means clear cut, and throughout the film we are shown the situation from many differing perspectives, 'the film's shifts in sympathy, and refusal to identify with one group, could be seen as honestly reflecting the national uncertainty. ' There are definitely many points of view and racial origins to be taken into account, and the main characters come to symbolise either their race, or a particular group, both in the historical context, and the modern equivalent. So by examining these characters more closely it is possible to understand the different ideas that Utu evokes. The two most extreme characters on either side are Elliott, the British officer, and Te Wheke, who becomes the leader of the Maori fighting against the British led troops. There were many Maori groups who were heavily involved in the production of Utu , lending credibility to the Maori characters. Initially our sympathies lie with Te Wheke, when he discovers a village of his tribe has been killed, and the powerful scene where he compares the colour of his hand first to that of a dead Maori, and then to the hand of the white soldier he has been alongside. It is at this point where his transformation begins, and is followed by the tattoo scene, again it is very powerful, and along with his army's dress, strongly echoes the style of the Maori gangs of the 1980s. However Te Wheke does not keep the audience's sympathies for long as he becomes ultra violent, even ordering the deaths of some of his own followers, and by the time of his trial many characters are seeking 'utu' against him. Te Wheke is however not made to be a representative of the Maori; he is 'largely disowned by the race that produced him .' So, if Te Wheke is to blame on one side, it is clearly Elliott who shoulders the responsibility on the other. His extreme racism is reinforced throughout the film, from his condescending treatment of the Maori fighting on his side, to the continual, and it is assumed deliberate, mispronunciation of Te Wheke's name. Scott, on the other hand, the other main white character, himself a colonial, is, along with Wiremu, portrayed as an ideal New Zealander. Reid however takes a more cynical view of this, 'as Utu tells it, the increasingly easy-going Kiwi joker Scott, with his love for Kura, is free of any racist taint; while the pommie officer is a racist bastard. Which is very flattering for any Kiwi jokers watching the film. ' Whether this view of the British as opposed to the colonials is entirely accurate is questionable and the apparent desire not to attach anything negative to white New Zealanders isn't really in keeping with what might be expected, but is probably what the audience at home would have wanted. Wiremu is the character that is portrayed as the 'good' Maori, in stark contrast to his brother Te Wheke. If the main thrust of Utu is indeed to 'explore the subversive idea that Maori and Pakeha have more in common with one another than with the British ' then the character of Wiremu is a vital one. It is he who kills both Elliott and Te Wheke, the two most extreme characters, and he is well educated and willing to work alongside the British, seemingly for the good of the country as a whole. Disappointingly, we do not get much of an insight into his personality, and although his actions are memorable, such a complex character becomes, 'the most maddeningly under-developed character in the film. ' Utu was the first major New Zealand film of the 80s to tackle the issue of race, and whilst its setting is an historical one, its release came at a very difficult time for race relations in New Zealand. It has been criticised for being over complicated and not identifying more strongly with one point of view. Despite these negative comments, Utu is still very important in terms of how race is portrayed in New Zealand films, and, back in 1982, really brought the Maori into the consciences of movie-goers and filmmakers alike.
4 out of 6 found this helpful.
Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.