Directed by Tusi Tamales Reviewed by Paul Sorrell
One of the most arresting scenes in One Thousand Ropes shows the protagonist, Maea, a male midwife, delivering his daughter’s baby on his living room floor while a cartoon version of the legend of Maui’s roping of the sun plays out on the TV set. Like much in the film, the allusion is potent but evasive. If Maea is to escape his troubled past, he will need to deploy all the willpower, strength and sheer cunning that Maui showed in pulling off his cosmic trick.
Once a champion boxer, Maea (Uelese Petaia) now uses his hands to massage the bellies of pregnant women who come to his home, a drab flat in Newtown in Wellington, set among the local Samoan community. They also serve him to pound out dough in his night job as a baker. But as relationships at the busy Pasifika bakery turn sour, his kneading turns to violent blows, symbolic of his growing anger, frustration and isolation. Things appear to take a turn for the worse when his estranged daughter Ilisa (Frankie Adams) turns up at his flat, heavily pregnant to a violent, abusive partner.
The situation is complicated by the frequent appearances to the pair of a malign spirit, Seipua, who threatens to enter Ilisa’s womb and regain the life she craves through her unborn child. (In an early scene, we watch with horror as Maea removes a human tooth from his big toe. Later, we are able to join the dots when Seipua wraps her jaws around his foot.) In One Thousand Ropes pregnancy and childbirth are not always causes for rejoicing. Children are too often born into the poverty, isolation and latent violence that besets this transplanted Island community. Or, at least, this is how we see things through Maea’s eyes.
As in his first feature film, The Orator, Tamasese’s narrative isn’t laid out in easy, predictable steps. Rather, it unfolds in layers which are slowly stripped back to reveal Maea’s character and situation. The mood of unease and introspection developed in the film is rendered through the manipulation of lighting, setting, symbolism (watch out for the lemons) and the artful framing of the characters by his lens. When elements of magic realism and the supernatural are added to the mix, we appreciate how Tamasese has created the recipe for a slow-burning minor masterpiece that continues to smoulder in viewers’ imaginations long after the credits have rolled.
Tui Motu Magazine Issue 2015 May 2017:29