Vai (2019)

3.5 stars

Shot in long takes in eight parts by nine women filmmakers from the Pacific Islands, this is an illuminating and poetic take on the ‘spirit of existence’.

Dir. Nicole Whippy, Sharon Whippy, ‘Ofa-Ki-Levuka Guttenbeil-Likiliki, Matasila Freshwater, Amberley Jo Aumua, Mīria George, Marina Alofagia McCartney, Dianna Fuemana, Becs Arahanga
2019 | New Zealand | Drama | 88 mins | 2.35:1 | English, Samoan, Maori & Tonga
PG (passed clean) 

Cast: Ro Mereani Adi Tuimatanisiga, Betsy Lania Luitolo, Evotia-Rose Araiti, Fiona Collins
Plot: A journey of empowerment through culture over the lifetime of one woman, Vai.
Awards: Official Selection (Berlin)
International Sales: MPI Media Group

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate/Cultural
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Normal
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse


Review #1,797

(Reviewed for Perspectives Film Festival 2019)

Spoilers: No

If you are into minority cultures and traditions, then this film is perfect for you.  Similarly, if you are into meditating on the ‘spirit of existence’, for instance, ruminating on where life might take you or how connected you are to your own people and ancestry, then the film is also perfect for you.

Even if you don’t care for either, take that leap of faith and watch one of the most illuminating films of 2019. It is certainly an eye-opener in the best sense of the word.  There are a number of things going for it:

First, it is an anthology film made up of eight parts that chronicles the life of a woman from a child to great grandmother.  That woman, named Vai, is played by different actresses in each chronological segment.

Second, the entire project sees nine women filmmakers make these eight ‘shorts’.  They all come from the Pacific Islands, for instance, Tonga, Fiji, Samoa, etc., and so are their cast.

Third, Vai means ‘Water’, and in most segments, water is either instrumental as a plot device or as a setting.  Lastly, each segment is shot in long takes, sometimes extraordinarily in one very long take—quite the feat considering that the filmmakers dealt with a non-professional cast and natural elements.

As a portmanteau picture, Vai does naturally vary in terms of the content of each segment—some adopt a more traditional storytelling style that is enjoyable from a dramatic standpoint, while others are more ethnographic in nature with the purpose of capturing the colourful and celebratory aspects of culture.

But overall, the film is a poetic encounter with people who still stay true to their traditions and ancestries, even as modernity and modern ideologies like capitalism begin to encroach into their territory.

Premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival earlier this year, Vai is a triumph of filmmaking by minority female filmmakers, who are not short of stories to share with the world.  It is also a window of opportunity to take in the picturesque sights and mingle with these communities and families, without actually needing to travel to these isolated islands.

Grade: B+


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