"Once upon a time in a land far, far away," begins aboriginal actor David Gulpilil, the distinctively accented narrator of Rolf de Heer's sly, thoroughly engaging set of nesting tales. "I'm only joking," he continues with a chuckle, and starts again to tell "a story like you've never seen before," one that encompasses his own birth, a tale of traditional tribesmen on a hunting trip -- it could be 100 years ago or 1000 -- and an ancient legend that serves as a charming reminder that times and customs change while people remain maddeningly the same.
Set in the Arnhem Land of Australia's Northern Territory, it begins with brothers Minygululu (Peter Minygululu) and Dayindi (Jamie Gulpilil Dalaithngu), plus eight other men from their village, as they embark on an important mission: walking far from their homes to a swamp teeming with life, where they construct bark canoes and hunt for goose eggs. It's teenaged Dayindi's first expedition, and he's expected to watch and learn from the older men, who attend to the work at hand while enjoying the break from their day-to-day routines, gossiping, teasing and horsing like henpecked husbands on a restorative fishing vacation. But Minygululu has another agenda. He knows — as does every man, woman and child in their village — that the unmarried Dayindi is harboring "wrong thoughts" about Minygululu's third and youngest wife. So Minygululu begins a tale of their ancestors, a story that unfolded in ancient times. It begins with a warrior, Ridjimiraril (Crusoe Kurddal), who has a restless younger brother, Yeeralparil (also Jamie Gulpilil Dalaithngu), and three wives. First wife Banalandju (Sonia Djarrabalminym) is wise and patient with everyone except flirtatious second wife Nowalingu (Frances Djulibing). Third wife Munandjarra (Cassandra) is younger and more beautiful than the others, and Yeeralparil has his eye on her.
Minygululu tells his shaggy-dog story in a leisurely, discursive way, which is in keeping with the traditions of oral storytelling among Australia's indigenous people while serving his own purposes: "A good story must have proper telling," advises the narrator when Dayindi wonders aloud if his brother is ever going to get to the good parts, like maybe a war. The tale gradually branches out from Ridjimiraril's domestic travails to encompass every aspect of life in the ancestors' time, from fat, honey-loving village elder Birrinbirrin's (Richard Birrinbirrin) troubles with his wives to the ominous appearance of a stranger — who may be a sorcerer or simply a traveler — to Nowalingu's inexplicable disappearance and its tragic consequences. And while it may sound like a dry, ethnographic exercise, it's anything but: TEN CANOES is funny, perceptive, bawdy, tragic and philosophical, pretty much everything a viewer — or a listener — could ask for. (In English, Ganalbingu and other indigenous languages)
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