Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Dark Horse

New Zealand movies have a deserved reputation for being dark but I think they're mellowing a little. Or if not mellowing, at least not wallowing in the dark as much.  The Dark Horse shows New Zealand's poorer and rougher side but its raison d'etre is to celebrate someone who cast some light in the gloom. Sharon, who came with us to The Dark Horse, described  it as Once were Warriors meets Little Miss Sunshine.

The Dark Horse is a fictionalised account of part of the life of Genesis Potini, a speed chess champion from Gisborne who had bipolar disorder. It seems chess was instrumental in helping manage his disease and he taught many young people to play. At the opening of the Dark Horse, Gen is released from hospital and moves in with his brother Ariki  (a gang member) and fourteen-year-old nephew Mana. This arrangement is short-lived, since Ariki senses Gen's influence may have a bad effect on the likelihood of Mana joining the gang  Ariki gives Gen some money to find somewhere else to live. Meanwhile Gen  has tracked down a chess club for disadvantaged kids, held in the garage of an old friend. He leaps in with both feet, and undertakes to take the children to the junior chess championship in Auckland. He spends some of the money he's been given on multiple chess sets  (since the club only appeared to have one or two) and gets stuck in to teaching them properly.

This is all sounds rather tidier than the actuality. Gen sleeps rough because he has nowhere to go. One of the kid's mother's objects to her son being taught chess by a vagrant just released from a mental hospital, Mana wants to play chess but his father won't let him. His fifteenth birthday and being patched as a gang member is looming. Ariki is dying and wants his son to be taken care of.

This is a movie, so it all comes together. The chess championship is one of the highlights of the film - a van load of Maori kids (Mana included)  from the East Coast descend on a room full of mostly white kids in suburban Auckland and play chess with verve and enthusiasm. Gen is a vocal spectator and has to leave the hall to contain his outbursts. Once it's all over, it's back to Gisborne to cope with the fallout.

This is a very emotionally affecting film. The contrast between a kindly mentor who teaches a young person to think and plan by playing a game  (even if he does liken it to war) and one who is hardening them up to join a gang by taking them out burgling houses armed with a hammer couldn't be more stark. It seems particularly tragic that the subject of the film is no longer with us and that we're reflecting on his legacy rather than his ongoing work.

Anne's rating 4/5 Ian's rating 4/5

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