★★★★ - STUFF
- Kiwi producers Kerry Warkia and Kiel McNaughton's follow-up to their critically acclaimed debut Waru is perhaps even more audacious.
Rather than an octet of tales revolving around a single event, Vai focuses on eight stages in one woman's life (a kind of female Pasifika reimagining of Shakespeare's famous As You Like It speech).
For extra complexity, each of the vignettes is set (and shot) on a different island with completely new casts (which often include first-time actors).
Yet from Suva to the Solomon Islands, Manono Island to Motueka, there's a surprising coherency as Vai's journey from seven to 80-year-old unfolds. Some of that can probably be attributed to the restrictions the producers put in place. Each of the nine female film-makers (who also include Dianna Fuemana, Matasila Freshwater and Amberley Jo Aumua) were asked use water (the other Vai of the title) as a visual theme, create a shared history of their lead character and craft an around 10-minute tale, shot, where possible, in a single take. That last "obstruction" is a masterstroke, drawing the viewer into each of the stories, making them feel part of Vai's journey through the islands and providing a visual touchstone across the disparate tales.
As with Waru, some of the them are stronger and more impactful than the others. Freshwater's Solomon Islands' canoe-set fishing conversation between returning mother and resentful 16-year-old daughter says so much with so little, while 'Ofa-Ki-Levuka Guttenbeil-Likiliki's Tongan siblings' search for the water their Nena needs to make medicine offers the most comedic moments.
For many, Amberley Jo Aumua's look at 21-year-old Vai's struggle to make ends meet at an Auckland university will strike the biggest chord, while for others, Miria George's eco-activist drama will pack the most punch. But even the ones whose narratives aren't quite as strong offer a fascinating insight into Pacific culture, the role their women play and the cyclical nature of life. It also provides a terrific showcase for unsung film-making and acting talent, with the likes of Betsy Luitolo, Agnes Pele and Evotia-Rose Araiti surely destined for bright futures.
A kind of reverse Cloud Atlas or Orlando (where single actors play a character or characters across generations), Vai impresses even more when you discover that each film-maker only had a day of camera rehearsal and a day of shooting.
And as a parable in these troubled times of conflict and climate change, it's message that "the sea is what binds us as we sweat and cry salt water" couldn't be more apt.
- James Croot, STUFF
In English and various Pacific languages with English subtitles.