Moko is the name for a Māori permanent body marking. It was originally carved with bones creating a scarring on the skin rather than a tattoo made with a needle and ink. Each moko is unique to the wearer. It depicts the story of the wearer’s family, their ancestral tribe, and their position within that group. The moko is created by the Tohunga tā moko. Māori men have moko on their faces, backs, buttocks, and thighs. Women mostly have a moko kauae on their lips, chins, and necks, and occasionally on their foreheads.
A moko on the face is the ultimate statement of one’s identity as a Māori. The head is believed to be the most sacred part of the body. To wear the moko on the face is to bear an undeniable declaration of who you are.
After the Brits colonized New Zealand, ta moko declined as a cultural form. This was partly due to the Tohunga Suppression Act of 1907, which outlawed Māori medical practices. As these were closely linked to Māori spiritual and cultural traditions, the Māoris lost much of their culture and became what was termed as a “lost race.” The Act was eventually repealed in 1962.
These photographs of Māori women were taken circa 1900-1910. These were among some of the last women to wear the traditional moko kauae before its resurgence in recent decades.
More beautiful portraits of Māori women, after the jump…
Take a coming-of-age revenge story, add a splash of Maori mythology, a few measures of bloody martial arts and serve over a beautiful landscape and you have the ingredients for Toa Fraser’s kick-ass movie The Dead Lands.
Set in Aotearoa—part of the islands now known as New Zealand—in the time long before the arrival of any white settlers, The Dead Lands is an enjoyable tale of betrayal, murder and bloody revenge. The film centers around Hongi (James Rolleston) the son of a Maori chieftan who hunts down a band of rival warriors that slaughtered his family tribe. As Hongi is no fighter, he has to learn from a monstrous mythical Warrior (Lawrence Makoare), who patrols his own tribal home the so-called “Dead Lands”—killing and eating any unwary trespassers. Hongi and the Warrior form an uneasy alliance and together hunt down Wirepa (Te Kohe Tuhaka) and his murderous tribesmen.
Hongi is also aided in his quest by the ghost of his dead grandmother, who imparts bon mots of epigrammatic wisdom (“Anyone can give up!”) in what looks like a deserted nightclub. As Hongi is no fighter, he has to be taught how to kill by the demonic Warrior, who also shares his philosophy of life:
Death is not noble. Nor is life. If you ask me, the gods have this life to take pleasure in our suffering.
There is no nobility—just politics.
Which is all short and sweet, just like his advice on fighting:
First make them angry. They lose focus. Make a joke about their mother. That usually does it for me.
Lawrence Makoare (Lord of the Rings, Die Another Day) makes these lines zing—and manages the difficult task of making the Warrior likeable, funny and terrifying. His character has a terrible secret—“a blackness” that comes upon him “where even the God of War would not venture”—that makes him all the more compelling.
James Rolleston, who achieved considerable acclaim for his performance in Boy, is very good as Hongi, while Te Kohe Tuhaka is highly convincing as the arrogant bad guy Wirepa.
The Dead Lands uses many Maori traditions of ritual and mythology, in particular the Maori martial art of Mau Rakau, which involves much hand-to-hand combat and a respect for your opponent—even if you’re about to sever their arteries. Producer Matthew Metcalfe describes such tribal warfare being part of the Maori honor system.
“It was about honor, family, blood, ancestors. It’s not just about men trying to kill each other; it’s about men trying to kill each other with purpose, with a sense of honor, with a sense of ‘This is what we must do because our ancestors demand it of us.’
“It’s like The Raid or Apocalypto. This is Maori before Europeans came. This is Maori when they had their own empire in New Zealand, when it was tribe against tribe. It was about honor, fighting to the death and how your ancestors thought of you.”
Co-producer Tainui Stephens adds, “We’ve endeavored to show action that is very firmly based in the Maori world, in the world of Maori martial arts and in the world of Maori thinking. Every culture around the world has its own way of dealing with conflict. Many cultures have martial arts traditions and many of these traditions have become celebrated in the action film genre. This is a first chance for the killing arts of the Polynesian peoples to be explored in this kind of entertainment.”
The Dead Lands is directed by Toa Fraser, whose previous films include the excellent Dean Spanley with Peter O’Toole and Sam Neill. Fraser has an interesting and eclectic CV as filmmaker, but admits to watching movies like Commando, The Last Boy Scout, Lethal Weapon and Die Hard when he was growing up. He also once wrote to the producers of James Bond when he was twelve asking to make his own Bond movie. The Dead Lands is a fine calling card for such a talented director that offers the international audience a view of New Zealand that has never been seen before. So, grab the popcorn if you want to watch some blood ‘n’ guts and beefcake martial arts from down under.
‘The Dead Lands is now on limited release and is available on VOD, details here.