Apron Strings (Sima Urale, 2008): New Zealand

Reviewed by Linda Schad. Viewed at the 2009 Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

In her first feature-length film, Apron Strings, Samoan-born New Zealand-raised director Sima Urale stirs the cultural melting pot and serves up a well-crafted, visually delicious, character-driven contemporary drama about food, love, traditions, and the spicy issues that create heartburn in the lives of two separate but parallel “Kiwi” families from racially diverse cultures: Sikh (East Indian) and Pakeha (New Zealanders of European descent).

At the heart of this touching, emotionally charged, yet often humorous tale are three outwardly strong but inwardly vulnerable women whose lives and livelihoods revolve around their love of food and family.

Anita (Laila Rouass) is a modern, tall, stylish and extremely beautiful widow who hosts a popular New Zealand TV cooking show, but is frustrated by her producer’s repeated, stereotypical attempts to exploit her East Indian ethnicity, a culture with which she no longer identifies.

Anita’s more traditional but estranged sister, Tara (Leela Patel), is older, shorter, rather chunky, not terribly attractive, and still single, who nevertheless has inherited and runs the family’s no-frills neighborhood curry shop single-handedly, and has just unknowingly hired Anita’s 20-year-old son Michael (Nathan Whitaker), who is secretly seeking the family and culture he has never known.

Lorna (Jennifer Ludlam) is a white, lower-middle-class, middle-aged, meat-eating cake maker who owns a successful neighborhood bakery, but who struggles to come to terms with the racial and cultural changes occurring all around her, especially within this previously all-Pakeha suburban community of Otahuhu (in South Auckland); meanwhile at home her unemployed, deadbeat 35-year-old son, Barry (Scott Wills), gambles away every cent she gives him, and her daughter, Virginia (Jodie Rimmer), has just returned home from college – pregnant, unmarried, and a vegan.

Gradually, as these seemingly separate storylines unfold and then converge, like layers of dough being rolled out and kneaded, both families are forced to face their respective dysfunctional issues, to find the courage to confront secrets and mistakes from the past, and learn to deal with the legacy of pain and denial. Only then are the two mothers, Anita and Lorna, finally able cut the apron strings and set their respective sons free.

On the one hand, Apron Strings is reminiscent of many John Sayles’ films, using its great ensemble cast and surprisingly high, almost glossy production value considering its extremely low budget ($2 million provided by the New Zealand Film Commission and TVNZ) to address problematic interpersonal relationships, as well as social and racial issues.  This, in turn, has created a most engaging film. On the other hand, its storyline is sometimes predictable, its characters are often grating in their stereotypical responses, and the script is a bit over-written. Therefore, I would suggest it best to wait for Apron Strings to appear on cable or for its release on DVD.

That said, it’s too bad that no one has invented a way to communicate smells, fragrances, and aromas within a film because this film comes very close to capturing its culinary essence. Shooting originally in super 16mm film, cinematographer Rewa Harre has done a wonderful job of lingering upon both food and people, allowing the viewer to drink in and absorb their very essence.

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