Reviews and notes
Beer handles for starters - in the opening moments of Paul Maunder's SONS FOR THE RETURN HOME
, adapted from the Albert Wendt novel, a sinking feeling that the familiar, signposted tour of the Land of the Long White Stereotype is to begin again lifts with the realisation that the pub is English. Joshing a Scot and a West Indian, a comradely Englishman amuses a girl from New Zealand who, invited to comment on the proposition that "the policy of separate development is universal", agrees that New Zealand is no racial utopia.
She walks out into a London street and cool piano sound track gives way to strumming and warm chanting as the film glides into a Samoan home-coming celebration. One of the two sons of the returning family moves away from the crowd; alone on the beach, he takes out a photograph of the girl and, though he lifts his head to a view of palms and sparkling waters, sees Wellington Harbour from Victoria University and relives his first meeting with the girl. The fluency with which director-screen-writer Paul Maunder introduces theme, characters and settings displays skill and economy; brisk pace and contrasted moods whet the appetite.
The second meeting, in the university library, sounds the appropriate awkward note of tentative sexual overture and ends with a precisely judged throwaway. The girl, Sarah, says she is studying English; the boy, Sione, history (just now he "knows all about Oliver Cromwell"); as Sarah leaves, she exchanges a word with friends, who ask if she's doing anthropology now. The remark is half-heard, as if by Sione, and Sarah physically brushes it away - lightly as if, amused, she were dismissing a silly pun.
When Maunder trusts in the fleeting he scores with convincing detail but when the pace flags his technique becomes intrusive and attention is misdirected. One conversation has Sarah and Sione sitting in profile - as they talk the camera pulls focus, back and forth, so that the speaker is in focus, the listener out of focus, in, out, in, out...it's a regular tennis rally of irrelevance. Worse is a scene of outdoor lovemaking. A "discreetly" averted camera eye slowly pans through out-of-focus grass, the actress's face strains in close-up and the sound track suggests an obscene phonecaller with amplifier. What's the point? As shot, the scene is neither erotic nor informative about the quality of the lovemaking; the evasiveness is unjustifiable - an example of bad taste aesthetically and an undermining of the post-coital conversation in which she thanks him and apologises for sounding critical and he angrily reacts because she's not a virgin.
Despite a flexible structure of flash-backs presented out of chronological order, Maunder's placing of the big emotional scenes is shaky. They are islands in an uncharted sea. Fiona Lindsay as Sarah cries in a car - it's a big scene for the actress but there's no underpinning of the emotional depth, the preparation for the scene doesn't make it inevitable and the follow-through isn't implied. Similarly, the climax, a revelation that shatters Sione's belief in someone he loves, lacks force and is the one occasion when actor Uelese Petaia loses authority as Sione.
SONS FOR THE RETURN HOME
contains its share of stereotypes - a love story about a poor Samoan boy and rich white (palagi) girl, the Samoan family closeknit, the white parents estranged and their daughter unwanted... That caricature of a loveless marriage ("Now there's nothing, is there, dear?" asks the girl's drunken successful businessman father of her zombified mother) is unworthy of serious attention. There is much more to be learned from Wendt's Samoans, for he tweaks the stereotypes, and though one wants to know more of father, mother and brother, that's tribute to the complexity of his vision and his honesty in revealing contradictions.
Questions of chronology arise - the boys look young when they arrive in New Zealand but the parents still can't speak English when Sione gets School Certificate - and how Sione feels about mother, father and brother, and how they feel about him, the film suggests only briefly - but often marvellously. When his mother sets Sione to scrub the footpath before Sarah's first visit, his brother rags him about the trophy wall mother has prepared to impress the girl - the whoop in his exclamation "School Certificate!" is pure vernacular, and the woman with the push-chair tiptoeing through the suds is another flick of observation that triggers a flash of recognition.
One of the many ironies in a work muscularly layered with them is that Sione's search for identity - atypical in that he is a Samoan in exile in New Zealand - reveals so much about Kiwi manhood. This story of rugby, races and beer even glances at the Maori in passing and there again speed brings out the best in Maunder - two laugh lines, the second rendered with early morning cough, deserve the delighted response they get from the audience.
Sione is the central character - far more complexly drawn than Sarah - and to suggest how SONS
depicts him, take the dance theme. At a party Sione tells Sarah he can't dance. "I thought all Samoans were good dancers," she replies - and comically smacks her head in self-reproach for the gaffe. In Samoa, Sione is self-consciously drawn into traditional community dancing. At a Maori party he is invited to sing but offers to dance instead - and does so, proudly and magnificently.
The relationship between the sexes is explored as a complex clutch of issues and questions of health and power, of restoration and restriction are raised. Indeed, SONS FOR THE RETURN HOME
has the usual first novel confusion of too many subjects too summarily touched on and paradoxically a main narrative line that's too direct. But the richness and intelligence, the refusal to settle for easy answers to important questions, hold the attention fast.
Plaudits to Uelese Petaia for a sympathetic, strong and fearsomely complicated Sione and to Fiona Lindsay for a Sarah who goes beyond the rich girl role; like Maunder's direction, her performance is richer in the detailed work than in the strong emotional scenes. Moira Walker catches the sharp imperatives of Sione's ambitious mother. As the father, lani Tapu makes the most of a quiet paternal discourse on the qualities of a good woman.
SONS FOR THE RETURN HOME
is rewarding viewing. Though Maunder can be embarrassing when straining for the poignant or lyrical - soft focus, aimless wanderings and on the sound track a phantom pianist who maddens with intrusive mood music at every "touching" moment - and gauche when pointing out obvious features - Wellington has tall buildings - or received notions - that middle-class white nightmare of a marriage - he also emphatically holds interest for nearly two hours and pleases the eye with a professionally shot and edited work. SONS
is often funny, often sharp in its insights, welcomely serious in intention and complex in its working out of a tangle of related questions - an important film.
- Tom McWilliams, NZ Listener, November 3 1979.
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