By Ed Sum
(The Vintage Tempest)
Fantasia Film Festival 2020
Coming soon to:
Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival
October 15, 2020 at 12pm PT to 18th
For the latest screening updates, please visit TLoBT’s Facebook page.
The historical context nestled within The Legend of Baron To’a may well hide a deeper meaning. I found a lesson which speaks about early European-Tonga relations when New Zealand was being settled. No first encounter is ever perfect. This film’s introduction from two of the actors making an apology to the Royal Family and the Tonga suggests to viewers (who know the back history between these two nations) shouldn’t get offended in this satire.
Newcomers unfamiliar with this country will get an interpretation based on how a gang of ruffians can disrupt life in the suburbs. Thankfully, it only stretches a block or two. John Argall and Owen Black’s take had a context director Kiel McNaughton must have liked. When the Europeans first landed, the relationship between the Māori were largely amicable. But as land was sold and traded, tensions rose. Just how this relates to the Tonga isn’t fully clear, though it’s easy to assume Baron To’a’s name borrows from and plays with how to represent this sovereign nation.
We don’t know where in New Zealand this takeover is happening. The location doesn’t matter because this gangland attitude can take place in anywhere in the world. Nobody will know about the problems in a neighbourhood unless you’re a local. Fritz (Uli Latukefu) lost touch with this fact when he left home after his father, the famous Baron, died. He had it easy in Australia, including getting an education in business, but he lost touch with a lot of what made him a kid and being native.
The only reason he’s come home is to sell the childhood home where his only tie to that past life resides.
Uncle Otto (Nathaniel Lees) tells his nephew everything that’s happened since he left. He’s also adamant that unless the young man recovers the championship wrestling belt that his father left the family (a symbol of a life he left behind), he will not sell his share of the house. The obstacles he faces are not just from within the family but also out.
One problem includes living up to what his deceased father (excellently played by John Tui), a champion wrestler, represented. According to Otto, he represented the best of what being a Polynesian–being warm and charitable–means. Although we see him mostly through flashbacks, this actor has the charm of a teddy bear whom you just gotta hug. He steals every scene and he’s just as much of a charmer as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. It’s not surprising he was in Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw as one of Hobb’s Samoan cousins.
No matter where one goes, people love wrestling. It’s not only a way to release pent up anger but also a method to show how primal a fight can become. This film has a few Jean-Claude Van Damme movie dialogue moments that are enjoyably corny and the best battles are when it goes full on WWE Street Fighter! Sadly, there was no cage match, but I’d be for it. A showdown is inevitable, and if you’re not invested to see the takedown of the idiots who think they own this neighbourhood, then this variation of a gangland tale isn’t for you.
4 Stars out of 5