Rating: * * * *
Verdict: In exploring the fascinating past of a character in one of his earlier films, director Vincent Ward gets in the way of his own storytelling
In his first project since the troubled River Queen, Vincent Ward disinters his second film, In Spring One Plants Alone, and looks with a 50-year-old's eyes for what he might have missed as a young man.
Ward, then 21, spent two years living in a remote valley deep in the Ureweras to make Spring. It was a fly-on-the-wall documentary portrait of the daily life of an elderly woman, Puhi, and her adult son, Niki, a violently unpredictable but plainly very smart schizophrenic, and it achieved its modest ambitions superbly. But, as Ward tells us early in this odd sequel-of-sorts, the film had a "troubling undercurrent" and he returns to Puhi's story to find out what it was.
In doing so, and despite describing himself as a "reluctant participant", he takes up an unconscionable amount of screen time and, more worryingly, seeks to project his own anxieties on to an extremely complicated cultural narrative.
Epic in context and heartbreaking in the sheer weight of its grief, Puhi's story is certainly worth telling: selected at 13 by Tuhoe prophet Rua Kenana to marry his son Whatu, she was present on the day in April, 1916 when police stormed Rua's community at Maungapohatu to unseat the man the white press had dubbed "the Maori Kaiser".
It's good to be reminded of this story, particularly in the same month that the "terrorists" of Ruatoki at last appear in court, and Ward does that superbly, weaving archival stills with fanciful re-enactments (at least one rescued from River Queen's cutting-room floor) to useful and often engrossing effect. But this is more than a history lesson: searching for the source of Puhi's grief, Ward discovers that she had 14 children to three men and that all, save the tormented Niki, died - most from disease - or were taken from her.
It's a horrendous story (though, tragically, not unique) but the way it's told often jars.
Ward brings Puhi back to life in the form of a heavily made-up Rena Owen, speaking a ludicrous pidgin that makes her sound half-witted. Other characters - Rua (Morrison), and Toko, Whatu's brother (Emile) - are more effectively reincarnated for re-enactments but Ward, distractingly sharing scenes with a horse, cuts a faintly silly figure, like a Pinkerton man reporting on the search for Butch Cassidy.
Worse, he treats the idea, held by some Tuhoe, that Puhi might have carried a "curse", not as a pungent metaphor but as some sort of forensic challenge; running this idea past her descendants, he seems clumsily literal-minded - as if the curse is a gene for diabetes - not to mention unintentionally patronising.
For their part, his interviewees seem deeply uneasy; as they speak about a past full of grief and shame, the viewer becomes voyeur.
By contrast, there are moments when you sense that Ward's interlocutors, twinkle-eyed, may be taking the piss (did Tame Iti really watch a mentally disturbed man lying under a tree for three days, one wonders).
Rain is very technically impressive in its effortless melding of genres and abounds in magnificent moments: a sequence near the end, involving a ghostly white horse and the naked Niki (Shortland), beaten in a pub brawl and lying in the street, reminds us of Ward's masterful power to compose haunting images.
But when Ward blandly suggests that "perhaps in death, mother and child were set free", or avers, with the most sketchy hearsay evidence, that Niki "defeated this curse" in later life, the suspicion lingers that this is too much a film about the artist's anxiety.
Paradoxically, in trying to atone for missing the essence of Puhi's story when he was a callow 21, Ward may have lost sight of her again.
Cast: Rena Owen, Temuera Morrison, Glenn (Kimikimi) Mane, Waihoroi Shortland, Taungaroa Emile, Vincent Ward
Director: Vincent Ward
Running time: 102 mins
Rating: M (violence and offensive language)
Screening: Rialto and provincial centres