Tamasese binds cultural tension into powerful tale

Tradition, spirituality, family ties, ghosts of a past long forgotten and haunting melancholia mix together in Samoan director Tusi Tamasese's latest film, One Thousand Ropes.

Blending together a slow-burning concoction of humanity and redemption proves to be fertile narrative ground for this tale of Maea. (Uelese Petaia, quiet and dignified, with hints of more emotion bubbling dangerously under.)

Living in a simple life in a run-down house in Wellington, and working daily at dawn in a bakery before providing Samoan traditional massage to pregnant women, Maea finds himself trapped in a modern world that appears to be turning its back on his old ways.

Maea is stuck dealing with the consequences of how he's handled life, and he is haunted by a warrior-like spirit lurking in the corner of his house that he believes he freed during a massage session.

Things reach a breaking point when the bakery Maea toils at brings in a machine to keep up the pace, while he continues to lose business to the local church and their style of midwifery.

When his pregnant daughter (Shortland Street's Frankie Adams) returns home, beaten and battered by her partner, Maea finds his quest for redemption renewed - but will the sins of his past ruin what's left of his future?

One Thousand Ropes is gloomy, bleak and slow-moving - and all the more powerful because of it.

It also has something of a commanding presence in among the darkness as Tamasese weaves intricate, careful detail into the fabric of this Samoan story that the audience will have to work with to get the most out of. He did something similar with 2011's The Orator, which delivered an emotional punch of considerable heft.

The slow-creeping power pace of One Thousand Ropes is unsettling and powerful.

While One Thousand Ropes occasionally risks leading a little too slowly towards its denouement, its stripped-back paucity and ominous foreboding build a terrifically-laced atmosphere that washes over those willing to spend a little patience in the cinema. It's already had good reviews out of Sundance and also the Berlinale, and it's easy to see why.

Themes of redemption and reconciliation co-exist and coagulate in the mix, as the a-lot-said-but-little-spoken forlorn film plays out. The pay-off is tangible too, and while Tamasese leaves a lot for the audience to connect the dots, the selective way the emotional moments land and the truths are revealed deliver maximum impact as well.

Predominantly, this is down to Petaia's dignified turn, one which is understated and subtle. The man once known as The Lion lumbers with the guilt of the past and teeters, with fragility, on the brink of giving in. This is a turn that delivers so much by doing so little.

There's some terrific imagery too - from the succubus-like Seipua haunting Maea and strangling him, to Maea's incessant kneading of the dough demonstrating his volcano-like emotions bubbling under, Tamasese does a lot with lingering slow shots, filling the frames of the film and providing more than screeds of dialogue ever could.

If you succumb to the rhythms and the slow-creeping power pace of One Thousand Ropes, the end result is quite unsettling and powerful. Weaving together both myth and personal tragedy makes a potent mix for Tamasese, and despite the sedentary pace potentially putting some people off, it actually works in ways you could never expect.

Evocative, haunting and hard to shake, One Thousand Ropes is a timely reminder, once again, that small-scale intimacy works infinitely better than big screen bluster.

Cast: Uelese Petaia, Frankie Adams, Beulah Koale
Director: Tusi Tamasese
Classification: M
Running time: 96 minutes

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