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Heaven’s Burning is, like many 1990’s Quentin Tarantino wannabes, a derivative piece of crime fiction that struggles to punch through the façade of originality. Which is not to say that Craig Lahiff’s film doesn’t have its moments, it’s just that it’s drenched in the shadow of Quentin Tarantino, and attempts to ride on the coattails of what made Tarantino, well, Tarantino.

Written for the screen by playwright, Louis Nowra, Heaven’s Burning has Russell Crowe (right on the cusp of Hollywood success) as Colin, a reluctant getaway driver who takes a gig with some ‘mates’ just so he can fix up a few debts he has. Meanwhile, honeymooner Midori (Yûki Kudô) has just fled from her husband Yukio (Kenji Isomura) as they holiday in Sydney. Midori hopes to make a new life for herself in Australia, and doing so, manages to find herself in the middle of a bank robbery that goes horribly wrong. Events lead Colin and Midori to flee on the run from both the police and the robbers that Colin was working for.

Trying to unpack Heaven’s Burning feels like a fool’s errand, but let’s give it a brief shot.       

Heaven’s Burning is an odd affair. It’s full of casual racism, but come the explosive finale, you’re left asking if maybe that’s part of the point of the film? This is a romantically bleak look at Australia – everyone is inept and racist, but Louis Nowra and Craig Lahiff appear to be saying, well, at least they’re Australian, isn’t that all that matters?

Before the violence even begins, we’re left to ponder the reason for Midori’s abandonment of her marriage. At first, it seems like she was forced into an arranged marriage or something like that, but it soon becomes clear that the mere notion of overcrowding in Japan was reason enough for her to want to flee her home country. When introduced to the open countryside, Midori stands up in a makeshift sunroof and announces to the world that she feels alive. The wide open nothing of the Australian outback is an inviting place for Midori, and she thrives in it.

But, Nowra’s script is aggressively anti-Japanese. Midori’s husband fumes over his wife just up and leaving him, so much so that he vows to hunt her down and kill her. When his business partner procures a gun for him, and Yukio accidentally kills him with it, Yukio immediately gets a thirst for blood and violence. Yukio quickly becomes a one note character who’s only concerned about one thing – revenge at all cost.

This reductive appetite for violence from foreigners carries on with the three Afghan brothers who decide to rob a bank. The robbery itself is one of the films high points – a brutal, unexpected sequence that continues to amplify the tension to breaking point, and has one moment of extreme violence which will leave you stunned. During the robbery, Midori is taken hostage, and after escaping, the remaining brothers plan to take her into the country to ‘get rid of her’. That plan turns sour as Colin saves Midori at the last moment, killing one brother, and leaving the other stranded.

The remaining brother, Mahood (Robert Mammone), makes it back to his father, Boorjan (Petru Gheoghiu), who together vow revenge on Colin and head off to hunt him down. The less said about the nineties staple ‘state of the art’ computer hacking sequence that Mahood and Boorjan use to track down Colin, the better. When Boorjan tracks down Colin, he utilises torture techniques he learned in Afghanistan, and pins Colin’s hands to a table with massive nails. Because of course he does.

So, for those keeping score – we’ve got a Japanese man seeking revenge to defend his honour. We’ve got an Afghan family who happens to be really darn good at torture. What else does Heaven’s Burning have in store?

Well, if you thought that Australian’s were going to get out of this mess unscathed, then you’re surprisingly wrong! Nope, security guards and police officers are exceptionally inept at their job. As Colin manages to make a getaway from the robbery, the security guard opens fire on the car, missing completely and instead hitting an oncoming woman driving her car in the head. Later, for no reason whatsoever, the police who are trying to track down the blokes who did the bank robbery run over someone’s dog. So, civilian casualties and canine homicide are the order of the day for Aussie law enforcement.

But, for some reason, the way the violence enacted by the security guards and the police officers is presented with a jovial affectation to it. It’s as if Lahiff is saying, hey, it’s ok that this guard shot that woman because he was protecting Australia. And, no big deal that the cops ran over the dog because they had to get on the tail of the crooks. As long as they’re taking pleasure as they enact violence on others, then it’s ok. Whereas Yukio and Boorjan both take extreme glee in killing people, so therefore, they’re bad people.

Yet, while all of this should make Heaven’s Burning a horrible affair, there is an odd warmth to the film. The casual racism and xenophobia that runs deep is wholeheartedly embraced by the film in a way that aims to lionise the Aussie bloke doing it tough. While the country ‘larrikins’ would never see themselves as being racist, the film does clearly outline that they are, in fact, racist. When Yukio encounters Sharon (an always welcome Susan Prior), the hairdresser who changed Midori’s hair colour to blonde, she comments that ‘you guys look better with blonde’. An off the cuff comment that on the surface seems innocuous, especially given the fact that Sharon is as high as a kite, but carries an undercurrent of racism to it.

The only indigenous character is a dope smoking rasta played by Alan Dargin. He flits into the mix ever so briefly, then disappears just as quick as he came. It says something about the state of indigenous roles in the eighties and nineties that Dargin’s short run of characters before his passing, include ‘Aboriginal Man’ (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) and ‘Tracker’ (The Marsupials: The Howling III). We’ve come a long way since then, but still have a long way to go.

There’s a slight dig at the huge wealth of nothing that Australian’s appear to completely reject – especially when compared to Midori’s wonder and admiration of it. Pubs are full of men getting drunk and drowning their lives away, while elsewhere drugs keep the users subdued and vacant, numb to the world around them. I’d be applying too much subtext to a film that has little of it if I said that maybe Heaven’s Burning was a film that explored how we never fully realise what we have til it’s gone.

Which is not to say that Nowra doesn’t try to inject some kind of world reflection into the mix with Colin’s father Cam (Ray Barrett), who espouses large about the karma coming for Japan after the actions of Japanese soldiers during WWII. Cam is a man who lives by himself on a huge property in the middle of nowhere. He takes photos of himself daily – like Rembrandt did with his self-portraits, he says – to remind himself that he exists in this world. He watches his land disappear due to drought, and then blames the death of his land on the kangaroos that have lived here before white folks ever arrived. When he meets Midori, she immediately recognises that he doesn’t like her. Cam advises that he has no hate left for anyone, but he wishes he did, as it’d at least be an emotion. What a devastating thing to say to someone – no, I don’t dislike you because I have no emotions left to do so, but I wish I did so I could actively dislike you.

When Cam meets his end at the hands of Yukio, he reminds Yukio of the karma that will come to him down the line. One has to wonder, is the drought the karma that has come for the Australian male? Is it the empty ‘companionship’ that comes with drinking from dawn to dusk in a fly ridden bar? Is it waking up in the morning and realising that your emotions have abandoned you, just like the wife that left for the city decades ago? Louis Nowra has the viewer leaving Cam having his face pushed into a dirty pond, the land that he despises eventually consuming the old codger.

It’s here that Nowra draws his bow and attempts to hit a bullseye, but greatly misses the mark. By equating the actions of Japanese soldiers in WWII, to the actions of soldiers enacting torture in Afghanistan, and then purporting that hey, Australian’s are doing things just as bad to themselves with drugs and drink, well, it’s tone deaf. If this is not the comparison that Nowra is aiming for, then I’m lost as to why he would even bring up WWII or torturing other than colourful set dressing for his dialogue.

There’s a lot to hate and dislike in this film, a lot to turn your nose up, but there’s also a wealth of greatness in there. Russell Crowe and Yûki Kudô are superb as Colin and Midori. Crowe shows why he was able to co-lead LA Confidential in the same year that Heaven’s Burning was released. Louis Nowra’s script is mostly good, unfortunately not a scratch on his scripts for Radiance and Cosi. Craig Lahiff’s direction skews a little too much into the realm of Tarantino-copycat, but otherwise ticks enough boxes to make it watchable.

As Cam and Midori talk, she hears a bird cry in the night and calls it beautiful, to which Cam shuts her down saying that while it may sound beautiful, it’s actually a cry of fear. Which – in a nutshell – is what Heaven’s Burning is all about. It’s about embracing all of the ugly, all of the fear, all of the anger that thrives in Australia. For many, this notion alone is disgusting – especially in a modern context –, but there can sometimes be value in exploring these themes in film. It’s clear that Nowra isn’t endorsing what he’s saying, but it doesn’t make the message any less aggressive, and it’s clear he’s also not condemning the message either.

There are no heroes in Heaven’s Burning. Everybody is corrupt and everybody is wrong. This includes director Craig Lahiff and writer Louis Nowra. This is a curious beast of a film – I was equally entranced and frustrated. The action is top notch, but the content surrounding the action is a little more difficult to digest.

The new Blu-Ray disc released by Umbrella Entertainment is superb. The clean-up of the print makes for a stunning transfer – Umbrella have really stepped up and need to be applauded for putting a heck of a lot of work into their releases. A commentary by Louis Nowra and producer Helen Leake is informative and engaging. Cast and crew interviews surrounding the films release are passable, mostly playing like expected back patting from all involved as they come down from the post-filming high. The deleted scenes on offer show why they were removed, and a behind the scenes video is exactly that – behind the scenes footage of a film being made. Also included are some of Craig Lahiff’s short films and trailers for his other films. These are great, and always appreciated on an Umbrella release.  

This may not be an essential release, but for those who like Australian cinema, then you’ll find a lot to enjoy and appreciate with the disc as a whole. For everyone else, check out the trailer below and decide from there.

Director: Craig Lahiff
Cast: Russell Crowe, Yûki Kudô, Kenji Isomura
Writer: Louis Nowra