Dir: Armagan Ballantyne. New Zealand-Germany. 2009. 86mins.
Childhood, sudden death, Maori culture and rugged New Zealand scenery make a potent mix, compellingly handled by Armagan Ballantyne in her debut feature The Strength of Water. A largely naturalistic melodrama with a restrained undertow of magic realism, this brooding but approachable story sets an introverted mood against imposing landscape visuals and, while not as commercially exuberant as the similarly-themed Whale Rider, Ballantyne’s feature has a quiet polish and emotional honesty that could win it a modest slice of the international market which embraced that film.
Bowing at Rotterdam before moving to Berlin’s Generation programme, The Strength of Water was shot around the rugged coasts of the Hokianga in northern New Zealand and is set in a secluded Maori community where 10-year-old twin brother and sister Kimi and Melody (Paparoa, Mayall-Nahi) live on a chicken farm with several siblings and hard-working parents Gibby and Joy (Moriarty, Brunning).
The twins befriend Tai (Barber), a solitary young man who moves into the neighbouring dilapidated house of his dead grandfather. But when Tai and Melody take refuge from a barking dog, tragedy strikes unexpectedly, sending the film off on a surprising course half an hour in. The asthmatic Melody dies, and Tai is widely blamed for the incident - especially by the girl’s older brother Gene (Shyane Biddle), whose gang starts a vendetta against the lonely outsider.
Meanwhile, Kimi angrily refuses to accept his sister’s death, so much so that she, or her ghost, sticks around to converse with him, unseen by others. While Kimi’s behaviour becomes increasingly volatile, a solicitous Melody calmly ponders the condition of afterlife, and reminds her brother to keep feeding their favourite hen. Against all odds, however, this shift into muted supernatural fantasy never comes across as whimsical - which is at once tribute to the level-headed performances of the child actors, to Ballantyne’s confidently downbeat direction, and to the restrained screenplay by playwright Briar Grace-Smith.
With its picture of a blue-collar Maori community eking out a hard living, Ballantyne’s Sundance-developed feature has much in common with Whale Rider, while considerably more muted in tone and less obviously pitched as child-friendly viewing. Sparingly deploying its elements of Maori folklore and culture, the film comes across as a rural drama that could almost - cultural specifics apart - be set anywhere in the world. It’s more interested in psychological states than strictly in narrative, and while the young siblings’ story reaches a quietly satisfying resolution, other threads finally feel inconclusive, notably the relationship between Tai and neighbourhood beauty Tirea (quietly compelling newcomer Pare Paseka).
Above all, Ballantyne carries off the difficult task of making something approachable from what is essentially an introspective mood piece located in a claustrophobically enclosed world.
While the film will certainly benefit the reputations of its writer and director, cinematographer Bogumil Godfrejow’s widescreen lensing makes the harsh coast and bordering grasslands look at once lush and starkly forbidding: predominantly greenish tones enhance the aquatic ambience suggested by the otherwise enigmatic title. Among a strong cast, young newcomers Paparoa and Mayall-Nahi have an everyday vulnerability and toughness. The only problem is that an atmospheric, windblown sound design sometimes makes it hard to hear what their reticent characters are actually saying.
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