Hustler with a heart

By Peter Calder

Sometimes outsiders see us more clearly than we see ourselves. Sandor Lau, an American New Zealander of Chinese-Hungarian extraction, had been here barely three years when he made Behaviours of the Backpacker, a thoughtful and engaging road-trip movie about his walk from Auckland to Cape Reinga, which had more to say about New Zealand than the work of a dozen primetime TV documentaries.

That movie was buried in a Saturday afternoon television slot, but you may be sure that his new film, Squeegee Bandit, won't be on television at all, since its profanity count is up there with Glengarry Glen Ross and Goodfellas.

Its Maori title character is a traffic-light windscreen washer who goes by the name of Starfish and who, for more than half the film's running time, seems little more than a foul-mouthed extrovert with a borderline personality disorder.

But as Lau - and we - get to know him, the film morphs into a moving, even harrowing, portrait of a man who struggles with the cultural and economic dispossession suffered by so many of his people.

His often shamelessly hammy mugging for the camera - Starfish shows that windscreen washing is 10 per cent car maintenance and 90 per cent street theatre - gives way to artfully edited sequences in which he rails against every man who did him down and a society which has marginalised and victimised him and many like him.

You won't see this on Close Up, but it's pretty close to home.

"The idea of doing this," Lau explains, "is that we are supposed to live in a democracy and the idea of a democracy is that each human being is of equal worth and people have a right to be heard. Starfish is a guy with a lot to say but has never really had that opportunity.

"If you see his rough side as well as his beauty and humanity then you can understand the beauty and humanity of so many people like him who have had rough lives and done some bad things but are also human beings."

Lau deploys a variety of techniques to tell Starfish's story. Colour filters pick out a police car here, a Santa hat there; at times the film looks like a hip-hop or breakdancing video; elsewhere, text and digits wash over the images. At times, but rarely, it's a bit mannered and forced, but nothing can overwhelm the force of Starfish's personality.

"I modelled him on classical mythology. He is like Maui or Odysseus, a superhero who can do things no one else can. But he is also deeply flawed. And you can see the development of his character in the story.

"It's a great way to tell the story of poverty and disenfranchisement in New Zealand through the eyes of someone who makes the story engaging."

* Squeegee Bandit by director Sandor Lau at the Auckland International Film Festival Friday July 14, Sunday, July 16, Monday, July 17 and Tuesday, July 18.

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