It was tempting to expect that the first truly Samoan feature film - entirely in the Samoan language and written and directed by a Samoan - might have been a small and precious thing, worth praising more for the promises it made for the future than for its achievement in its own right.
But it is no such thing: Tamasese's feature debut, which advances stylistic ideas rehearsed in his independently funded short film Va Tapuia (Sacred Spaces) is a powerful and impressive achievement, a sort of Pasifika High Noon, in which the weapons for the climactic duel are words, not six-shooters but in which the hero must stand tall if he is to triumph.
The impelling irony here is that the film's hero is a dwarf. Saili (Sagote) is a dirt-poor taro farmer, who lives in an isolated village with his wife Vaaiga (Pushparaj) and daughter Litia (Mataia) in domestic circumstances whose problematic history only slowly becomes clear.
It's best not to spell it out too plainly here, but Tamasese's screenplay, which is assembled with the precision of a veteran, puts plenty at stake for the main characters: both are outsiders in their own way but it's Saili who has to - quite literally - rise to the challenge and prove the bonds of love can sometimes trump those of blood.
It's an understatement to say that the film is deeply rooted in its location; it's actually synonymous with it because its cultural context is its meaning. Chieftainship and oratory (the film's Samoan name, O Le Tulafale, describes someone whose chiefly authority flows from his oratorical skill) is both part of the formal framework and the essence of the story: to be a hero, Saili must find his voice.
Tamasese's prolific use of wide shots continually locates the characters in their landscape but Leon Narbey's sublime cinematography still turns in shots that focus on detail and bring the land alive. And the patient and observant pace, which may seem to drag until you surrender to it, allows time for subtle gestures to convey as much as lines of dialogue. Doubtless there is a world of meaning here that no Palagi could hope to discern, but there's nothing exclusive about the way the film melds the conventions of the movies with the traditional narrative rhythm of a folk tale. This film really is very special.
Cast: Fa'afiaula Sagote, Tausili Pushparaj, Salamasina Mataia, Ioata Tanielu
Director: Tusi Tamasese
Running time: 110 mins
Rating: M (violence, offensive language) In Samoan with English subtitles
Verdict: High Noon in the Pacific