Thursday, 18 September 2008

Rain of the Children (2008)

Written and directed by Vincent Ward

There are several adjectives impossible to avoid when attempting to describe Vincent Ward’s latest film.  Compelling is one, gripping another.  Perhaps most apt is haunting – this is an utterly absorbing, unforgettable and entirely New Zealand story of love, loss and survival across a tumultuous time in our history.

At the centre of the film is Puhi, a bent old woman of the Tuhoe iwi, who welcomed the then twenty one year old Ward into her remote home back in 1978.  Over the course of two years, he filmed her daily life for his award winning documentary on traditional Maori life, In Spring One Plants Alone.

Puhi died soon after he finished the documentary, but Ward never forgot the charismatic woman who called him her mokopuna mā (white grandchild.)  Sparked by his recollections of Puhi and thirty years worth of unanswered questions about her life, middle-aged Ward goes back to her home in the Uruwera ranges, aiming to uncover her story.

Blending footage from his original film, new interviews, fact finding missions and highly dramatic re-enactments in what he describes as “part folk tale, part ballad, part mystery story,” Ward creates a cinematically beautiful and at times dreamlike patchwork of fact, fiction, stories handed down and the opinions of those who remember Puhi - “the special one.”

Ward’s detective work is captivating, each answer begging another question about this singular woman.  Who was Puhi?  Why did she cling so strongly to her mentally ill adult son?  And why did she believe she was cursed?

The filmmaker behind Vigil, Map of the Human Heart and What Dreams May Come is no stranger to very human, emotional stories – but this is really something different, touted as “Vincent Ward’s most personal feature to date.”  In a tribute to Puhi and his treasured memories of her, Ward appears on camera and narrates the film, a touch which cements Rain of the Children as something very special from an already unique filmmaker.

Heartbreakingly sad, yet by turns enchanting, funny and endearing, this is a slice of a very different kind of life, leaving the audience with the conviction that there is nothing so extraordinary as the life lived by an ordinary woman.

This review was originally written for an online magazine, and is republished with permission.

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