Samoan director Tusi Tamasese’s quiet power of storytelling is equally compelling in his second feature, One Thousand Ropes, echoing the same restraint as his award-winning debut, The Orator. Intoxicating yet beautifully told, this tale of atonement, is about a Samoan fighter seeking redemption for the violence that divided his family and exiled him to solitude.
Uelese Petaia plays the intriguing protagonist Maea. He is a baker who despite his boss (Anapela Polataivao) hounding him every morning to hurry up, refuses to rush the preparation of his dough for the Pani Popo(Coconut buns) and German Buns (Coconut filled doughnuts).
Maea is also a traditional midwife, and the scene where he is helping to deliver a baby and the TV depicts a story of a demigod snaring the sun is a casual connection between life in the flesh and its parallel spiritual dimensions. This informs the meditative drama of a man with healing hands who has also scarred his family.
Maea buries the placentas of his clients under a lemon tree and uses the juice from its fruit to massage their stomachs during pregnancy hinting at a chain where each new life feeds the next line of babies. (My mum says they used lemon for their hair in the islands to make it nice and soft just like Maea does in the film).
The film is set in Lower Hutt, Wellington, in the low-rise village of council-owned houses that once stood between Taranaki and Hopper streets. These houses were built to shelter a 1980’s community where homelessness and unemployment was on the rise.
Maea lives a simple life in his almost empty flat, with shots of a kettle and the Samoan Keke Sainas in his kitchen. Only indirectly do we learn that the abusive behavior towards his late wife, broke up his family, represented by the faded squares where photographs once hung on the walls.
A spirit of a dead woman clinging to life named Seipua (Sima Urale –award winning filmmaker and King Kapisi’s sister) keeps him company. Seipua lives in the corner of his living room and taunts Maea that she will find a way to rebirth. Being Samoan you will be all too familiar with the concept of “Aitu”- Ghosts / Evil Spirits. Superstitions are very much a part of the Samoan culture and we have traditional healers who are experts in this realm. Maea doesn’t mind his supernatural guest, however his estranged daughter Ilisa (Frankie Adams) unexpectedly arrives at his house, beaten and heavily pregnant, is very disturbed by her.
Maea demands that his daughter tell him the name of the baby’s father. Even when he does learn the father’s whereabouts, Maea struggles against his own “Lion” – the fighter’s instincts as well as his kava drinking peers in the community, who urge him to dish out justice. There is a sense of humility as Maea tries to defy the ingrained standards of violence to bring reconciliation into his world.
Leon Narbey’s cinematography is gracefully striking coupled with Tim Prebble’s pensive score. The slow pace captures all the intensity and tension of this character-driven drama forcing the audience to assess the conflicts and the character’s innermost thoughts. Maea’s hands are the moving symbol of a patriarch seeking forgiveness through his daughter and changing his place in the world. Tamasese’s ability to combine domestic drama with spiritual elements, drawing us into a world of Samoan culture, complex characters and hope, is a world that is profoundly moving and stays in your mind days after watching One Thousand Ropes.
Til next time xoxo