Tūhoe kuia inspires Māori-Taiwanese film project

By Mihingārangi Satele

Laha Mebow is creating a feature film based on Taiwanese and Māori cultural links. Photo / Stephen Parker

By Mihingarangi Satele, Te Rito Journalism Cadet

An indigenous Taiwanese director will use the memory of a Tūhoe kuia who recently died to complete her cross-cultural film project.

Laha Mebow is the first indigenous female director from Taiwan. She's recently finished her third major film, which is featuring at the Cannes Festival.

Mebow first met Tūhoe kuia Hokimoana Te Rika-Hekerangi - known as Nanny Hoki - when visiting Aotearoa for a film exchange programme in 2019.

Mebow says she did not expect to make such a quick connection with 'Nan' or so many esteemed leaders in te ao Māori including Tame Iti and Rangi Mātāmua. She appreciated their guidance during the early development of the film The Child - a project she's working on with Kiwi lecturer Brendan Donovan and Māori filmmaker Todd Karehana.

"The film follows the investigation of a Māori man who was found dead in the mountains of Taiwan. The lead police officer believes it to be connected to the death of her daughter and must return to Aotearoa to uncover the truth," Mebow said.

She said Nanny Hoki, who passed away in March, helped her understand the value of Māori and other indigenous languages.

Taiwanese film director Laha Mebow paying her respects to the whānau of Tuhoe kuia Hokimoana Te Rika-Hekerangi. Photo / Supplied

Taiwanese film director Laha Mebow paying her respects to the whānau of Tuhoe kuia Hokimoana Te Rika-Hekerangi. Photo / Supplied

Mebow travelled to New Zealand last week to pay her respects and visited the kuia's urupa deep in the heart of Te Urewera forest in Ruatāhuna.

"When a tribe loses big leaders, you can only hope that someone will continue their legacy and that is what I aim to do with this film. It will be a journey of connection for all of our Austronesian family and Nanny Hoki especially," Mebow said.

"Nan understood what my purpose is here. She was a strong teacher in te reo Māori who could empathise with me and my journey to unlocking my mother tongue.

"There were lots to learn from her. As soon as I heard the borders were opening, I booked my ticket over to see Nan in her final resting place."

Mebow said Nanny's Hoki's ancestral home is reminiscent of her mountainous hometown of Atayal in Taiwan.

"Our people share the same ambition to revitalise our native language and ways of living. My people were also skilled hunters like those of Tūhoe."

After spending 30 years growing up in the city, Mebow has reconnected to her iwi of Atayal. She has directed several films about her culture ever since.

"This genre is dominated by horror elements, and almost never considers the supernatural as culturally embedded in indigenous life."

She said it is a requirement for young Tayal men to embark on a three-day forest trip before they can attain chieftainship, symbolised by facial tattoos, similar to tā moko.

"I think Aotearoa audiences will be both excited and shocked to see the similarities and differences with their genetic ancestors."

The Child will resume its funding process and be in theatres next year.

Public Interest Journalism, funded through NZ On Air