Movie Review: One Thousand Ropes - an intoxicating story, beautifully told.


One Thousand Ropes has been selected as New Zealand's foreign language film nomination for next year's Academy Awards.

One Thousand Ropes (M)

98 mins ★★★★½

If One Thousand Ropes screened with Finnish dialogue, say, in our annual International Film Festival, cinephiles would surely rave.

It tells a somewhat grim story rather like that which we'd see in a Dardenne Brothers film. I'd even go so far as to liken it to the work of Michael Haneke.

The gritty, surreal, domestic drama tells the gentle story of a private, community-minded midwife whose pregnant daughter turns up unexpectedly on his doorstep with unspoken secrets. A tale unfolds which combines cultural expectations with shame, violence and a mysterious haunting. All this makes for an intoxicating film which is beautifully told.

Frankie Adams and Uelese Petaia both deliver stunning performances in One Thousand Ropes.

Frankie Adams and Uelese Petaia both deliver stunning performances in One Thousand Ropes.

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But One Thousand Ropes isn't Finnish or Austrian. Instead, set in the suburbs of Wellington, it's a local story with concerns that are much closer to home. It's the second Samoan-language feature from writer-director Tusi Tamasese (The Orator) and it is simultaneously mystical, gorgeously photographed and often very hard to watch.

What makes this harder to accept because it's set on our doorstep? Is it because we've been conditioned to see Samoans on screen as laughing buffoons (Sione's Wedding, Three Wise Cousins)? Do we feel that cultural repression is reserved for Middle-Eastern stories? Tamasese proves this wrong, doing a masterful job of portraying a Pasifika world-view which is consistent with that of many New Zealand citizens, but which will also open the eyes of our nation's predominantly Palagi populace. In so doing, the director has created an exquisite, thoughtful, devastating film for all New Zealanders.

The beautifully languid, observational photography lingers on small details, while most of the dialogue is spoken by a character out of shot, forcing us to focus on the silent reactions of those on-screen. Incorporating sound design which speaks volumes so the actors can say very little, One Thousand Ropes delivers a story packed with supernatural elements which manage to feel entirely plausible. (In this regard it evokes Haneke's nightmarish scenes in Amour.) These cinematic choices are a daring move in this modern world of frantic reaction shots and on-the-nose musical cues, but Tamasese trusts his actors (few of whom are recognisable, thus lending an even more authentic air to proceedings) and succeeds in immersing us in his protagonist's world.

The acting from all quarters is stunning, with special mention of the dead-eyed daughter (Frankie Adams from Shortland Street) and the principal old chap, a great, dignified yet quietly fierce old man who is driven to put community wrongs right. Played by Uelese Petaia, the slow reveals of his character's past keep us gripped as events unfold.

Putting to bed expectations that Samoans only appear on screen for laughs or as gangsters (as in The Last Saint), One Thousand Ropes heralds a bright young talent in New Zealand filmmaking and a refreshingly frank window into the lives of our neighbours.  

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