A lesson I learned when I saw Bad Taste: if there’s a god, it must’ve loved New Zealand; loved it like I love ice cream, clouds, or hummingbirds. That god gave NZ almost every natural blessing that can be bestowed. Those blessings are visible throughout the excellent indie I saw last Monday, Kawa.
Kawa is about a Maori man trying to come out to his family. I’m friendly to all, but neither gay nor bi-curious. No matter your attitudes, I think it’s easy for anyone to appreciate that the issue here runs deeper than sexual orientation or preference – it’s about identity, fear, and community. When I read the plot synopsis, I couldn’t resist this film; I wanted to see NZ and the Maori, as well as what it might show about people dealing with “real” problems.
Our lead has a beautiful wife, healthy kids, a good job, and parents that clearly love him. Unfortunately, between his home life and his extended family, our protagonist is doubly-screwed; he’s part of something that can’t be accepted by anyone he knows. Worst of all, Kawa has made his own bed: he’s lied to his parents since childhood, and he’s been married for over a decade…
Kawa, then, is an amazingly good person who’s stuck in an awful situation, and this film finds him in the middle-to-late stages of a quiet breakdown. This devoted family man can’t stand to ignore his desires, yet he loves his family too much to officially leave them. He tries to explain it all to his parents, but chickens out when they start to control the conversation.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with being gay, or (since the lead has two kids) bisexual. However, when a married father leaves home for weeks and gets his own apartment, then he clearly has issues to deal with. Even when Kawa pursues his natural happiness, it falls apart because of his obligation to a double life.
This picture follows a steady pace throughout: family, work, extracurricular activities. These three elements cycle through the film again and again. Each time, we see a different version of Kawa: selfless, brave, weak, wise, conflicted, shameful. Each time, he tries to solve the same problem: how can he satisfy himself without alienating and hurting everyone he knows? This movie is nothing like the stories my friends tell about “straight” married men who spend too much time at the gym…
The audience learns everything slowly. The skilled storytelling means that you’re not overloaded with exposition; you have to pay attention to catch everything, but that’s how movies should be. The actors are all fine, and there’s a lot of nuance in both the dialogue and the line readings – in any moment, you can pick up on hesitation, worry, subtle pride, resentment… This isn’t Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle.
As much as I loved the plots and the acting, it’s the scenery that made me smile most often. New Zealand is a beautiful place, and Kawa does a great job of showing it. Better still, Fred Renata is a great cinematographer, and the various pans and tracking shots are all as dazzling as the basic scene composition. Even speaking as a photographer only, this movie is a real gem.
One of the things I loved was that Kawa himself isn’t stereotypical. He doesn’t crumble in the face of every conflict, and participates in the rituals of his Maori ancestors with all the zeal of any tribe member. The lead doesn’t violently fight his nature, struggle with his sexuality and gender, or act like a helpless dandy. This film is about a person who’s been lying for ages – with some small justification – only to find his life in utter collapse.
It also doesn’t cast Kawa as a supremely-selfish philanderer. He’s not running around on his wife because he needs the “hot sex” he can only get with X (in this story, other men). He’s doing it because he was raised to not acknowledge himself. It should be harder to sympathize when the lead has a wife and two kids…
As I hope I’ve convinced you, this exceptional 2010 flick is complex and subtle. The balanced, mature atmosphere might stem from the mixed group that made this film: Witi Ihimaera’s original novel is brought to life by Katie Wolfe’s great direction and Kate McDermott’s impressive screenplay. It also helps that our troubled marriage is headlined by Calvin Tuteao and Nathalie Boltt, as the doomed lovers Kawa and Annabelle; both are charismatic and earnest, excellent in their respective roles.
The only element that doesn’t quite work for me is the crisis at the end. Audiences have seen this “of course the fractured family comes together” moment, and there’s not quite enough to justify its inclusion. Even there, this one cliche can’t spoil or derail a beautiful, professionally-perfect experience. I love that it intentionally makes itself out to be a modern variation on Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, or a more adult, gay version of American Beauty.
As with some of my reviews here, I’m covering a motion picture that came out a while ago. In the two years since it was filmed, Kawa has seen three release dates – none of them were a major theatrical push; this makes no sense to me. Similarly, I can’t understand why 39 users gave this movie a combined 6.2 on IMDb – how did 20 people rate this 6 or below? And somehow, the film is absent from both Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic.
Kawa is a smart New Zealand drama about people coming to terms with their family, their society, and themselves. Its strengths make it a truly complete movie, because they are legion: direction, camera-work, story, pacing, acting, and dialogue. I’d pay serious money to see a hundred films as intelligent, emotional, and well-constructed as this one. It’s available here on ITunes, and I recommend you go there forthwith.