Hunt for the Wilderpeople is one of the very best New Zealand films I’ve seen in years – I’m tempted to say one of the very best New Zealand films I’ve seen full stop – as well as the crowning glory in Taika Waititi’s career to date. Over the course of his filmography, Waititi has sketched out a self-consciously minor version of New Zealand: none of his films lay claims to any grand statements about either Western or Maori culture, nor about the identity of the country as a whole, but in many ways that is what makes them feel so inextricably Kiwi. Across the Tasman Sea, it often feels as if every Australian film – or every indie Australian film – is anxiously trying to light upon the quintessential Australian scenario, narrative or mindset. As a result, there is a certain seriousness – or self-seriousness – to Australian independent cinema, which – for the most part – feels oriented around some definitive statement about the life and culture of the nation as a whole. In many ways, that’s because Australia has never quite managed to repeat the international acclaim of the New Wave in the late 1970s and early 1980s, which is not to say that there haven’t been talented Australian directors, actors and producers – if anything, there have been more – but that the increasing porosity of Australia with the Asia-Pacific region and the increasing incorporation of Australian talent into Hollywood has tended to preclude the kind of intensely and introspectively Australian visions that came with the rise of directors like Gillian Armstrong, George Miller and Peter Weir.
Of course, New Zealand also had its own New Wave, although it came a little later in the shape of directors like Jane Campion, Peter Jackson, Lee Tamahori and Geoff Murphy. What distinguishes New Zealand from Australian cinema, at least in terms of their respective New Waves, is that these directors promulgated visions of the country that from their very outset were deeply syncretic and alive to the commingling of identities that constituted New Zealand culture. While Jackson may have focused largely on Western characters and Tamahori may have focused largely on Maori characters, there was no real sense in either director’s work – or in the work of any of these directors, really – that we were encountering anything like a definitive or summative vision of New Zealand culture. Indeed, these directors frequently lapsed into fantasy or at least intense genre visions in order to capture something inextricably picaresque about New Zealand culture that defied the kinds of arthouse style that came to characterise Australian cinema in the 70s and 80s. Whereas the Australian New Wave tended to be introspective, ponderous, brooding and fixated upon the plight of white masculinity in the face of an urban environment that was increasingly as inhospitable as the desert, New Zealand cinema tended to focus on kinship arrangements that complicated or brokered that of the European nuclear family. In part, that was a result of New Zealand’s different relationship to empire – less a focus of the British Commonwealth than Australia while also devoid of much of Australia’s convict legacy – but also stemmed from the fact that the Maori presence in New Zealand is much more inextricable from the Western presence. Whether because there is much more space away from cities in Australia or because Australian cities have been more segregated and ghettoised than New Zealand cities, it is much easier for Westerners to pretend that indigenous people don’t exist, whereas in New Zealand the compactness of the country has tended to breed a closer connection – or at least more of a mutual awareness – between Western and Maori influences.
In many ways, Waititi’s body of work speaks to that inextricability, as well as the necessity of developing a kinship structure that encompasses it – a kinship structure that, by definition, cannot be exclusively Western nor exclusively Maori. While both Boy and What We Do In The Shadows hinted at ways of capturing and inhabiting that permeability between the two cultures, Hunt For the Wilderpeople feels – to me – like Waititi’s most fully-formed effort, partly because it is also his funniest film as well. To a great extent, the picaresque atmosphere of New Zealand exports like Flight of the Conchords is part and parcel of this continual interface between different cultures and kinship systems – something we don’t see as much in Australia, at least in terms of our on indigenous presence – and in Hunt For The Wilderpeople, Waititi manages to make over that picaresque sensibility in his own image, making for a film that plays as an extended journey, or an extended chase, depending on how you look at it. From the very outset, the film makes a sharp division between urban and rural New Zealand, as we start in media res with the arrival of Ricky (Julian Dennison), a troubled orphan who has been bundled around the foster system, at the home of his foster aunt Bella (Rima Te Wiata) in the country. As his accompanying police officer Paula (Rachel House in a show-stealing performance) – and her dopy sidekick, Andy (Oscar Kightley) – make clear, this is Ricky’s last chance before he is sent into the juvenile detention system, for a string of comically petty crimes that range from loitering to running away.
At first, it seems as if the stage is set for an unusual kind of family drama centred on Bella and Ricky, since once Bella’s estranged husband Hec (Sam Neill) enters the picture, Ricky finds himself at the heart of an oddball family scenario that in many ways is more urbane and sophisticated than the crude urban culture and know-how that Paula represents. Combined with Ricky’s love for all things gangsta, and his ability to import his gangsta fantasies anywhere, the first third of the film serves to break down the distinctions between city and country, central and peripheral, and Western and Maori that hover around the premise of the film. In particular, Bella manages to speak to Ricky’s urban know-how while also whetting his appetite with stories about the home of her ancestors – a lake, far away up in the mountain, where spirits go to be reborn. One of the beautiful things about the film is how deftly it manages to retain the majesty and dignity of these Maori spaces without ever relegating them to some kind of exotic or rural fringe, with this mythical lake gradually coming to feel like the epicentre of the entire country – and all the urban and technological resources that the country has at its disposal – even as it becomes more ethereal and spiritual at the same time. Similarly, for all that Ricky’s gangsta attachments remind us of his time in the city, they also become more vulnerable and less violent as they’re removed from their original context – at one point he confides to Bella that Tupac is his best friend – as well as more aligned with wider and more inclusive kinship structures. While African-American hip-hop – and gangsta rap in particular – has been adopted by all kinds of disenfranchised indigenous peoples as a language for resistance, I’ve often noted that it tends to be shaped into a particularly reparative and inclusive language by Pacific and New Zealand peoples. That reshaping is very much on display here, as Ricky’s gangsta vocabulary is gradually adopted by all the characters in the film, but not in a way that deracinates it so much as in the spirit of some more emergent way of being together and experiencing closeness and community.
I’m getting a bit ahead of myself, however, since the first act comes to an abrupt close with the sudden death of Bella, at which point Ricky finds himself alone with Hec. Given how much Bella has done to help Ricky find himself – even in this small space she seems to converge Western and Maori familial traditions on a new kind of wisdom and warmth – this is something of a ballsy move on the part of Waititi, so it feels right that Waititi himself presides over it, playing the role of the officiating priest whose eccentric brand of Maori Christianity absorbs some of Bella’s own Maori-Western syncretism as well as taking some of the tragic edge off her death, while still leaving an element of melancholy that translates back into Ricky’s relationship with Hec. At first, this relationship runs the risk of turning static, or sending Ricky back to the city, but a series of mishaps on a brief hunting expedition suddenly finds the unlikely duo running for their lives across the New Zealand hinterland with an increasingly expansive search party at their tail. It is at this point that the film really starts to tap its picaresque potential, as the pair meet a whole variety of characters who partly – but never completely – embody the spirit of New Zealand, to the point where this particular stretch of woods comes to feel much more vibrant and more essential to the life of the nation than the urban and urbane institutions that Paula invokes as part of her increasingly absurd and comic mission to recover and “rescue” Ricky in the name of the New Zealand foster and juvenile detention system.
Critical to the entire escape, of course, is the relationship between Ricky and Hec, as well as between their respective Western and Maori heritages. In many way, the narrative writes itself – the wisdom of youth meets the wisdom of age – so it’s impressive that Waititi consciously resists and rewrites that narrative. Whereas another film might move towards the realisation that Maori and Western culture have a lot to teach each other, or are more entwined than they think, Waititi simply starts from that premise – Maori and Westerner are already inextricably, syncretically, entwined – with the result that Ricky ends up having more to say about the latest trends in global pop culture while it is Hec who teaches him some of the traditions and skills of the local Maori, passed on to him by Bella in turn. As a result, the New Zealand forest becomes a kind of carnivalesque and somewhat magical space in which the racial, ethnic and cultural barriers that – supposedly – structure the country don’t apply, as Ricky and Hec develop an emergent sense of community with and through the people they meet along their journey. Key to that carnivalesque atmosphere is Waititi’s wildly inventive visual style, which pairs unexpected movie references, incongruous soundtrack choices and a dizzying array of internal montage structures to paint the forest as a space where even the independence and isolation of New Zealand cinema itself is in doubt, as the journey comes to feel more and more permeable with the global cinematic culture from which the duo are ostensibly retreating. By the time that Ricky and Paula express their final standoff through an extended riff on Sarah Connor’s role in the Terminator films, it almost feels as if this journey into the heart of the wilderness has clarified just how inextricably New Zealand’s heterogeneous identity is bound up with the emergence of social media, as Waititi rejects any “organic” “natural” or “ecological” convergence of Westerners and Maoris – these are, after all, the very terms that separated them in the first place – in favour of an emergent, extravagant and irreverent collage of New Zealand voices that almost requires digital media – or the metaphor of digital media – to capture the full intensity of its anarchic joy.
That’s not to say, however, that there’s not a deep wonder to this emergent portrait of the country, nor that tradition is completely disavowed or jettisoned, but that the film – like digital culture – seeks to both grasp history and distribute and disperse it laterally into a more variegated and reticulated present. Nowhere is that clearer than in my favourite episode in the film, which occurs around midway through, and sees Ricky coming across two Maori teenagers while trying to find medical assistance for Hec. On the one hand, these two teenagers are presented in an overwhelmingly mythical and mystical light – Ricky first encounters Kahu (Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne) on a majestic horse, lit by the setting sun, and scored to magical music. She’s the first girl roughly his age that we’ve seen in the film so far, and all the burgeoning wonder and sensuality of early adolescence is projected onto her as Ricky climbs on the horse and follows her back to her family home. At this point, I wondered whether this character might be one of the denizens of the spiritual lake mentioned by Bella – Ngatai-Melbourne puts in such an ethereal and elusive performance that at times she feels more spirit than human – so it was something of a twist that her family home turns out to be the most up-to-date space in the film so far, equipped with fixtures that place us right in the heart of urbanity but without ever detracting from the mystical overtones of it all as well. Just in case that transition played too comically, or introduced too much bathos, Ngatai makes the brilliant move of only introducing us to Kahu’s brother TK (Troy Kingi), leaving their parents largely invisible and somewhat unarticulated in the background. Whether they’re just in another room or somewhere else entirely is unclear, but in either case this unusual family arrangement of two siblings once again prevents the film settling into anything like a conventional kinship structure, with Ricky and Hec finally returning to join this idiosyncratic and emergent household – a household that almost seems to have been waiting for them – when the film finally arrives at its conclusion.
If Ngatai-Melbourne puts in one of the most luminous performances of the film, then Kingi is almost as good as TK, putting in a pitch-perfect rendition of the kind of goofy bro culture that Waititi does so well – a delight in male bonding but also a relaxation and elasticity within that bonding that gradually lends itself to every other relationship in the film turn. Nowhere is that clearer than in TK’s comically throwaway comments about the New Zealand Warriors – we first meet him emerging from watching a Rugby League game – whose peculiar status within the NRL as a whole often seems to define the atmosphere of the film as a whole. While every footy team has its particular character, the Warriors have a particularly picaresque quality, not only because they’re the only team to stem from New Zealand, nor because their fanbase is so oddly distended between Auckland and New Zealand as a whole, but because the very nature of Rugby Union and Rugby League in New Zealand is so different to that in Australia. On the East Coast of Australia, in particular, Union is perceived as a high-class sport and League is perceived as a low-class sport, whereas in New Zealand there is much more interpenetration between the two, with players like Shaun Johnson equally comfortable in both codes and most footy fans following both codes to some extent. In many ways, that difference in football culture corresponds to the difference between cinematic cultures as well, since where Australian films are often keen to isolate and a particularly serious and “stylised” vision of working-class affect, New Zealand films often have a more fluid and picaresque sense of class affiliations, as well as racial, gendered and identity affiliations more generally. It’s no surprise, then, that both Rugby Union and Rugby League in New Zealand tend to draw more of a syncretic fanbase than either does in Australia, to the point where it often feels as if Rugby offers something of the same emergent and provisional sense of kinship to be found in Hunt For The Wilderpeople – not, perhaps, in the international arena, where traditions like the haka provide a relatively static and arguably caricatured version of Maori culture, but in domestic Rugby Union, as well as the odd and somewhat picaresque space between domestic and international competition occupied by the Warriors.
All of that, then, is a roundabout way of saying that it feels absolutely right that the final home and resting place for Ricky and Hec is first introduced by way of a comically mythical urbanity – horse riding into a sunset that turns out to have every modern convenience – that is cemented by a Warriors game, as well as the kinds of self-deprecating and picaresque commentary that inevitably attends Warriors games – “those Warriors, rubbish” – since one of the strange quirks about this team is that their unusual position in the NRL seems to guarantee that they never quite play to the standard of their individual players, nor manage to cohere into the kind of unified masculinity expected of them, even with icons like Shaun Johnson, Issac Luke and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck on their rosters. While that can be deflating for Warriors fans – and the team has the largest fanbase in the competition – that deflation is here used to elasticise and relax Rugby culture in much the same way that Ricky elastices and relaxes gangsta culture. In both cases, a stereotypically masculinist activity is co-opted for tribal purposes, but that tribalism is actually what makes it more reparative and inclusive, challenging any preconceived notions about Maori tribalism in the process. In a recent article in NZ Rugby News, Dale Budge attributed the success of Akira and Rieko Ioane to their family attachment to Rugby, since their father Eddie played for Samoa while their mother Sandra played with the Black Ferns. Apart from the fact that the Ferns have always enjoyed more success and acclaim than any Australian Women’s Rugby team, the peculiar identification between this family on the field of Rugby – and their iconicity as something of a Rugby family – gestures towards the ecumenical spirit of Hunt For The Wilderpeople as well, which among other things is the first New Zealand film I’ve seen that really taps into the kinship structures surrounding Rugby in Kiwi culture, even it it doesn’t always do it in an overt or dramatic manner.
While the “wilderpeople” turn out to be characters from a children’s story, then, it feels as if the whole film is aiming to both debunk any single or constrictive notion of indigenous New Zealand heritage but also trying to set up a new kind of indigenous identity in the process. Dissociating Maori people both from the stereotype of rural wilderness but also from the stereotype of rural wilderness unable to cope with the demands of the big city, it’s a film that paints Maori kinship as the pinnacle of urbanity amd generosity, as well as proposing a version of New Zealand in which Westerners are incorporated into that kinship structure rather than simply supplanting or appropriating it. That’s a delicate balance to pull off, and the fact that Waititi succeeds is testament to the exquisite ways in which he melds comedy and pathos, hope and melancholy, as well as his relentlessly restless visual style, which always seems to be reinventing the film from the inside as well as challenging us to do away with even our most residual notions of how the “real” New Zealand is supposed to look – or the very idea that the “real” New Zealand is capable of being framed as a static object or outlook at all. As in Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake, New Zealand here is presented as a process, and it is that sense of becoming-Kiwi as an open-ended and emergent experience that allows Ricky and Hec’s relationship to evolve right until the very end, as both of them discover that their connection to their country is both more expansive and more provisional than they had ever envisaged.