When The Dark Horse premiered as the Opening Night film at the NZIFF Film Festival on 17 July 2014, the National Radio Review declared it "one of the greatest New Zealand films ever made".
Indeed, this biopic on a New Zealand chess legend epitomises everything to be admired about the New Zealand film industry and its flair for storytelling.
This emotive and inspiring drama follows the true story of Genesis Potini, the fascinating former chess champion who went in search of a life reflective of the game he adores.
The film, in a word, is provocative. It explores loyalty and the fine line between honour and coercion.
Written and Directed by NZ-born actor and film-maker James Napier Robertson (I'm not Harry Jenson, 2009), the film begins by introducing Genesis (Cliff Curtis) as a chess-obsessed sufferer of bipolar. Genesis was a child chess prodigy who suffered a complete mental breakdown after achieving success and spent most of his adult life in care. He is released from hospital and, having no-where else to go, is taken in by his brother, Noble (Kirk Torrance), the chief of a local Maori tribe.
Also a resident of the decrepit commission house is Noble's son, Mana (James Rolleston). Soon to be 16, Mana is destined for initiation into the tribe.
Plagued with demons as he attempts to integrate back into society, Genesis grasps the opportunity to teach a group of local, disadvantaged children, the game of chess. Genesis anchors the film with the emotionally-charged goal of playing in the NZ national junior chess championships.
Meanwhile, Mana's violent and humiliating initiation begins.
The Dark Horse becomes a drama of two lost souls who find the strength to defeat their demons through each other's unexpected company. "A king for a king" is a recurring phrase, as Genesis and Mana exchange the "King" Chess piece to symbolise each other's importance in the game of life and the beautiful truth that everyone – from king to pauper – starts out as an equal, with the same amount of pieces, in a game of chess.
The film is glazed with a tension that, every now and then, comes to stare Genesis straight in the face, only to be thwarted by the benevolent reactions of this gentle giant.
Coupled with Mana's ruthless tongue, the story progresses like a yin and yang search for purpose – where neither can find their place in the world without the other, even though it was each other's presence that offset their journeys in the first place.
Descried as "moving and incredibly humanistic" by Film and TV news and review website Indiewire, and with a rating of 9 on IMDb, The Dark Horse is sure to astound Australian cinema-goers.
The film is scheduled for release in Australia on 20 November 2014, with a worldwide theatrical release in early 2015.