In a little less than a month Geoff Murphy's Utu will be re-released (premiering here in Wellington) as a Redux version of its former self, digitised, remastered and re-edited by Murphy himself (with the help of Peter Jackson's impressive post-production facilities). It's kind of a big deal for me.
Stuff carries the news pretty well, and it's where I first heard about this. I was, rightly, too young to see the original on its theatrical release, and so my early understanding of the movie came about through a rather lurid photo storybook our school had in its library, and the small phenomenon it created domestically on its release. 1983 was only two years out from the Springbok Tour, and in the same year Murphy's future wife (who also appeared in Utu) the late Merata Mita had her fly on the wall documentary of the resulting protests and civil unrest Patu! screened. Utu seemed to the the one that got everyone's attention, locally and internationally.
Utu of course is not a film about the Springbok Tour, but in a way it fitted into the national consciousness in a way that Mita’s stark, un-narrated piece couldn’t have, by adding to our popular culture by way of, essentially, a pseudo-historical tale of revenge set in the turbulent years of the Land Wars. By accident or design Utu may have been given something of a pass domestically coming as it did from the creator of the hugely-successful Goodbye Pork Pie, and indeed the two movie share some DNA – most obviously some familiar cast members in Kelly Johnson, Bruno Lawrence and John Bach, but also some of the earlier movie’s daggish, blokey humour – a piano comes off second in one encounter with a marauding native militia, and two double-barreled shotguns get strung together to form an impractical weapon that assuredly provides a very loud noise if nothing else. And yet beyond those touches there’s a commitment to detail, whether historical or cultural, that anchors Utu in a real world, and achieves more than merely re-dressing the cinematic Western with fern trees and moko. It made a star of its lead Anzac Wallace and carries itself with the confidence typical of that generation’s leading local filmmakers. It’s a shame that Murphy didn’t share the considerable success of his contemporary Roger Donaldson overseas, but that that this was never achieved is not to discount the enormous significance of this movie to local filmmakers and storytellers.
After its domestic release Utu as launched globally and,despite losing 15 minutes and a hefty re-edit, garnered some considerable praise. I had a 'director's cut', losing ten minutes of the original length some years ago, although the nae is a misnomer, as Murphy apparently had no say on the edit. This latest cut once again reduces the original's running, whihc may be no bad thing in an age of time bloat. Will modern new Zealand audiences receive this story as well as they did thirty years ago, will they have more jaded eyes on viewing, or more forgiving? Film critic Nicholas Reid once suggested that "every major character in Utu [found] spiritual descendants in the New Zealand of the 1980s." Thirty years on, I'm as interested to see what has become of that audience as well.