By PETER CALDER



(Herald rating: * * * *)



The promise evident in Grant Lahood's short films (remember Snail's Pace and Lemming Aid?) was brutally betrayed by his debut feature. The dismally unfunny Chicken should serve film historians as an example of the wrongheaded script assessment procedures that bedevilled the film commission in its second and third decades.



Lahood's second feature was brutally betrayed by the collapse of Kahukura Productions, which locked up several films for months in the hands of competing creditors. It arrives at last, somewhat tarnished by its history but regains its lustre in the opening minutes, proving an entertaining riff on that Kiwi rite of passage - the Big OE.

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The film opens on the tomboyish Sal (Lupi), a Levin 22-year-old heading for London to join her uptight big sister Maggie (McClean) and Maggie's bimbo-ish mate Liz (Horsley).



It comes, to put it mildly, as a surprise to Liz and Maggie that Sal has a film crew in tow, which plans to follow the pals on their classic Kombi tour of Europe. The crew has paid for Sal's flight, in return they want a slice of reality TV.



The dramatic and comic potential of this clever set-up is rich enough but Lahood ups the ante by introducing a snake in the grass: Scott (Whyte), who has money and is from Napier, charms his way into the touring party on the grounds that he knows something about VW motors. He is both less and more than he seems. Cue mayhem.



What makes the small and clever Kombi Nation work so well is that it is a film with the courage of its restrictions. Grant Lahood keeps the focus tight and never gets ideas above the film's station. He has a sure sense of the chaos of that form of travel, which is sort of like mixed flatting in a space the size of a ping-pong table, and captures perfectly the cringe-inducing style of the Kiwi abroad who will ask a Spanish icecream vendor for hokey pokey.



The film-outside-a-film device doesn't always work - the reality TV crew is peripheral and often inexplicably absent, but its presence is a perpetual source of dramatic energy - not least because Big Brother and other small-screen garbage has rather devalued the currency. But the performances are charming and Whyte's self-serving sleazebag is one of local cinema's most memorable creations.



It should also be a hit. After the Kahukura debacle, the film commission should have swallowed its pride and thrown enough money at the film for a decent publicity campaign (a roadshow in a Kombi, perhaps, a couple of stars, screenings in every town). As it is, Kombi Nation will get less attention than most Kiwi flicks and a lot less than it deserves. And that's down to a failure of imagination which is certainly not Lahood's.



Cast: Gentiane Lupi, Genevieve McClean, Loren Horsley, Jason Whyte



Director: Grant Lahood

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Running time: 87min



Rating: M (offensive language, sexual references, drug use)



Screening: Village, Hoyts, Rialto from Thursday