When Quentin Tarantino recently revealed to RNZ that his favourite New Zealand film was Geoff Murphy’s colonial-era revenge-Western Utu I’m sure many people’s first response was astonishment. Astonishment that Mr. Tarantino had heard of New Zealand cinema at all, let alone a sophisticated enough appreciation for our oeuvre to be able to pick a film from 1983 that in recent years has been difficult to even see.
We shouldn’t be surprised, though. Tarantino has been inhaling cinema from all over the world for a lifetime. His contribution to the documentary Not Quite Hollywood, an entertaining recent history of Australian exploitation pictures, confirms that he has probably forgotten more about Antipodean cinema than most local critics actually know. It may have been a pleasant surprise to give Utu pride of place – and to recognise Bruno Lawrence’s contribution to our nascent national identity – but a bigger shock would’ve been for him to spotlight the hidden strengths of other 80s pictures like, I don’t know, Kingpin, Dangerous Orphans or – a personal terrible favourite – Send a Gorilla.
The irony is that we don’t know which version of Utu that QT was so hot for – Murphy’s original version, an ‘export’ edit that producer Don Blakeney cut for the American release without director approval, or the new Redux version which confirms it as Murphy’s masterpiece.
In 2013, largely as a result of Utu cinematographer Graeme Cowley’s tireless search for the original materials as well as the funding to reassemble them, film festival audiences got to see a new version of Murphy’s Kiwi classic (now known as Utu Redux and destined to be the only version our children and grandchildren will know). Murphy (with Cowley, original editor Mike “Chopper” Horton and young gun Jonno Woodford-Robinson) spent weeks reassembling the film, correcting a few original choices he since regretted, reversing Blakeney’s interventions and generally giving the whole thing a bit of 21st century spit and polish.
The result was a revelation and received a justified standing ovation at the Embassy Theatre unveiling. Murphy’s vision of colonial New Zealand may have made emotional rather than historical sense but with the benefit of hindsight audiences can see that Utu says almost as much about New Zealand in the 1980s as the 1860s.
The recent handsome home video release of this new version – through the new Aro Video imprint – confirms what I thought at the time: Utu Redux is that rare thing – an utterly essential New Zealand film. Some of us may have other favourites (you could argue that Goodbye Pork Pie is more fun) but Utu justifies ownership because of the richness of its cross-cultural combat as well as the flamboyance of its handmade filmmaking.
There’s a single disc DVD edition but if wherewithal permits I recommend upgrading to the 2-disc Blu-ray which – for a relatively modest outlay – gets you the glorious high definition restoration as well as Gaylene Preston’s brilliant behind-the-scenes documentary Making Utu (sadly sacrificing the original TV aspect ratio in order to match the restored feature footage). And if they haven’t already sold out, you should get the 3-disc version which includes a CD of John Charles’ original soundtrack performed by the NZSO.
The maturity of New Zealand cinema at the moment tends to obscure how exciting those pioneering days were and how worthwhile many of those films still are. Ask Quentin Tarantino, he knows.
More on Utu Redux
Richard Swainson's interview with Quentin Tarantino which put Utu back in the spotlight:
Utu Redux trailer:
Geoff Murphy and Graeme Cowley chat with Kim Hill about the Redux project at the time of the NZIFF screenings in 2013:
Geoff Murphy talks to Wallace Chapman about his autobiography, A Life on Film, in November 2015: