Sione’s Wedding

English Title: Sione’s Wedding

Country of Origin: New Zealand

Studio: South Pacific Pictures Limited

Director: Chris Graham

Producer(s): John Barnett, Chloe Smith

Screenplay: James Griffin, Oscar Kightley

Cinematographer: Aaron Morton

Art Director: Iain Aitkin

Editor: Paul Maxwell

Runtime: 97 minutes

Genre: Comedy

Language: English

Starring/Cast: Iaheto Ah Hi, Teuila Blakely, Oscar Kightley, Shimpal Lelisi, Madeline Sami

Year: 2006

Volume: Australasian

 Four young male Samoan friends living in Auckland (Stanley, Sefa, Michael, Albert) get into trouble with their pastor and local elders because of their perceived irresponsibility and lack of maturity. They are told that unless they get serious girlfriends they will not be welcome at the upcoming wedding of Michael’s brother Sione. The film follows the comical attempts by the group either to find new female companions or to patch up relations with live-in girlfriends. Albert becomes besotted with a beautiful cousin dubbed Princess, who is visiting from Samoa, but slowly learns that his true soulmate is his co-worker Tania. Sefa has become rather indifferent towards his long-time love Leilani but recommits to her when she becomes pregnant. Stanley pursues a glamorous fantasy figure but finally opts for a more realistic and suitable partner. Only Michael does not change his ways, admitting he is an out-and-out womanizer with a reciprocated penchant for Palagi (European) women. The film climaxes with Sione’s actual wedding, which the four companions attend and where they reassert their friendship.

The release of both Sione’s Wedding and No.2 within a few months during 2006 made that a key year for New Zealand films whose stories were about Pacific Islanders. Sione’s Wedding quickly became a major hit, earning more than $NZ4 million at the box-office, which made it the highest-earning comedy film ever made in New Zealand (surpassing even 1981’s Goodbye Pork Pie). This performance was even more remarkable because it was estimated at the time that more than $1 million in takings was probably lost because pirated DVD versions of the film were sold illegally in the months before and after its release. Sione’s Wedding obviously struck a chord with viewers and commentators attributed much of this success to its positivity and benign representation of contemporary Polynesian life in Auckland.
The movie’s producer John Barnett and his company South Pacific Pictures had played an important role in making the shift away from grim negativity in film depictions of Polynesian life. Perhaps the key transitional film for his company in this regard was Whale Rider (2002), which moved away from the largely dystopian vision of Maori life seen in Once Were Warriors eight years before. Whale Rider, a hugely popular film, presented a Hollywood-type triumphalist heroine in young female protagonist Paikea rather than the tragically-violent figure of Warrior’s Jake (‘the Muss’) Heke. Further ground work in celebrating specifically Pacific Island culture was laid by stage comedy troupe the Naked Samoans (several of whose members played leading roles in Sione’s Wedding) and by the cult animated television show bro’town whose characters were voiced by many of the same actors.

Evidence of the immediate impact of Sione’s Wedding can be seen in the comments of reviewers and other journalists. Editorial writer Pamela Stirling in the NZ Listener said the film’s writers had ‘captured a new confidence and optimism about the browning of New Zealand’ and pointed out that Sione’s Wedding’s characters were plainly very comfortable about being themselves. Reviewer Graham Adams (Auckland Metro) said the film depicted a ‘lush-looking inner-city Auckland where everybody is either brown, wants to be brown or wants to sleep with someone brown’. Most of the film’s events take place in an idealized version of the inner-city suburb of Grey Lynn with its verdant parks and umu (earth oven) parties held in sunny backyards full of sub-tropical trees and shrubs. Other reviewers noted that Sione’s Wedding was so unselfconsciously Poly-centric that the viewer could easily accept seldom seeing any white characters at all.

The film also cleverly added to its commercial appeal by appropriating narrative conventions from recent Hollywood romantic comedies (e.g. Knocked Up, The Ugly Truth, The Wedding Crashers) that feature men who have trouble growing up and settling into mature relationships. It then added subtle nuances that helped such conventions tie in neatly with the values of Polynesian New Zealand life. For instance, Samoan culture provided an inflection on this ‘adultescence’ genre because it features many adult men still living at home with their parents, on whom they might be financially dependent, attending church regularly, and being cowed by authority figures, especially their mothers.

Thus Sione’s Wedding broke no new ground in its subject matter (youthful male high jinks) or in its storytelling mode (conventional, even formulaic, Classical Hollywood narrative). However, much of its social impact and commercial success resulted from its refreshing take on city life via the viewpoint of members of a newly confident ethnic minority in the new Auckland, and the comic panache and energetic attractiveness of its Pasifika cast.

Author of this review: Brian McDonnell