By Edwin Jahiel

ONCE WERE WARRIORS (New Zealand, 1994) ***. Directed by Lee Tamahori. Written by Rivia Brown, from novel by Alan Duff. Producer, Robin Scholes. Photography, Stuart Dryburgh. Editing, Michael Horton. Production design, Michael Kane. Music, Murray McNabb & Murray Grindlay. Cast : Rena Owen (Beth Heke), Temuera Morrison (Jake Heke), Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell (Grace Heke), Julian (Sonny), Arahanga (Nig Heke), Taungaroa Emile (Boogie). A Fine Line release. 108 minutes. Rated R (language, drunkenness, violence)
Sheep may safely graze in bucolic white-on-green, touristic views of New Zealand, but you get the ugly, dark underbelly in "Once Were Warriors."

While awkard, the title is clear. New Zealand's original inhabitants, the Maoris, are people who once were warriors. Now they are a sad lot, a subculture of blighted barflies, boozers, brawlers and bangers. At least those we see exist in derelict, ghetto-like, garbage-strewn areas, and subsist with low-paying employment or on the dole.

The film focuses on the Heke family. The father, Jake, is a muscular, commanding presence. He has just lost his latest job. He and Beth have been married for 18 years. They have five children.

Jake blows hot and cold at the drop of a hat, or rather at the dictates of alcohol. Within seconds he can go from a sentimental, singing, sweet-talking husband who courts his wife and can't wait to have sex with her, to a foul-mouthed brute who abuses her in unspeakable ways.

In the case of Jake, Beth an the rest of the cast, it is unclear whether they are full-blooded or part-Maoris. No matter, many of them are quite handsome. Beth may not have the enchanting looks of the best-known mixed-blood Maori in the world, singer Kiri Te Kanawa, but then who does? Beth is attractive in a fatigued way, still young in her athletic body, still sexually attracted to her man.

Beth, like all the men and women of her society, quaffs jumbo-size bottles of beer, though this does not perceptibly affect her as it does Jake. Everybody also chain-smokes as if they had never read the Surgeon General's Report but instead are trying to outdo older French movies.

Beth's sense of family is strong, her relationship with her husband is overpowering, a dangerous liaison in which, while she holds her own against Jake's excesses, minutes later she can be all affection, sex and cooing words. Is this plain masochism or a trait of neo-Maori life?

She is the center of the film, a Maori Mother Courage. She keeps a cool head, minds her kith and kin, shows independence, regularly speaks her mind and tells Jake off. This calls for his immediate ire and retribution, whenever he's had one too many, which is most of the time. After a particularly vicious beating, her best girlfriend sums up the main cause, which is that Beth does not follow the reigning wisdom for women: "Keep your legs open and your mouth shut."

(The argument advanced by some reviewers that Jake subconsciously takes it out on Beth because she comes from royal lineage while his ancestors were slaves, does not seem justified).

The five children are rather close-knit. Two are quite young. Pretty daughter Grace, in her early teens, is sweet, school-minded, wise beyond her years. In addition to keeping a diary, she writes little tales to read to her junior siblings, cleans up the messes of the wild parties at the Hekes, and tries to keep the young ones on an even keel.

The specific conditions of the Heke household and, I suspect, even more the general conditions of the Maori subculture, have taken their toll on the older boys. Boogie, the middle one, is becoming a delinquent and must appear in court. The oldest, Nig, joins a leather-and-tattoo gang in a back-alley initiation where he gets beaten to a pulp. But then, moral, verbal and especially physical violence is unremitting throughout the film. Visually, "OWW" is like a battered truck with a supercharged engine that allows it to roar away at demon speeds.

Director Lee Tamahori has a long background in TV commercials. It shows in the montage and the visuals, but as the picture has something to show rather than something to sell, the flash of commercials here gives way to punch. I must stress that the violence of this film is not for its own sake, but a fact of life and a key symptom of relative hopelessness.

Anything can cause it, whether at the parties that Jake throws, at the clockwork gatherings in bars, or in the bosom of the family, where even Beth is not above slapping Nig when he comes home drunk.

"OWW" is, in a sense, a terrifying picture, with more lamentable, in-your-face episodes that I will not give away. They lead to high drama and to a wrap-up that, while sad, tends to sentimentalize what up to now has been a merciless string of events and characters.

The film has broken all-time records in New Zealand. For a foreign audience, its ethnographic aspect is a powerful eye-opener. But for the same audience, it leaves some aspects unanswered, both in the substance of the movie and its editing or continuity.

In the first category, there is no finger-pointing for the catastrophic state of the Maoris. This may be a good thing, but at the same time, we cannot tell whether this is a situation special to some urban people or to most Maoris. It is not clear either whether the culprit-at-large is the white society (which is only glimpsed, in an not unkindly fashion) or specific economic, cultural, social, educational, racist or other factors.

In the second group, beyond Beth's repeated -- yet more or less understandable -- tolerance of her husband, there are odd spots. Abominably battered at one point, left looking like Charles Laughton in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame, " she has most improbably recovered with nary a contusion by the next scene. She is lso back to smiles and lovey-doveyness. This, in a nice car that unemployed Jake has rented for a family outing --but how and with what money, not to mention the cost of the perpetual sea of beer?

Those are distracting, and to some viewers, perhaps picayune question-marks. They are however typical of many contemporary films, including very good ones like "Once Were Warriors."