Udderly Hilarious: New Directions in New Zealand Comedy as Seen in Harry Sinclair's "The Price of Milk."(Critical Essay)
Horton, Andrew, Film Criticism
"I wanted to tell a story that was like a dream, a sort of little dream about New Zealand."
Harry Sinclair (personal interview)
In an old bathtub set on a deeply green North Island farming hillside, a shy young dairy farmer (Karl Urban) puts an engagement ring on his lusty and lovely tub mate (Danielle Cormack) after they have sipped champagne and washed dishes, all while seated opposite each other in their foamy tub. The pure romance, humor, and originality of the moment is typical of so many surprisingly pleasing moments in The Price of Milk. Part fairy tale with elements of magic realism involving a theme of indigenous peoples and land ownership, part screwball farce involving tending to some 117 dairy cows, and definitely romantic farming comedy between Rob, the dairy farmer, and Lucinda, his tree love, Harry Sinclair's second feature film not only announces a maturing of his many talents but also signals a joyous and carnivalesque departure from mainstream New Zealand cinema traditions.
The Price of Milk builds on Sinclair's past cinematic efforts but is also a clear departure. This latest effort goes for a "classic" rather than youthful hip Run Lola Run look, and Sinclair moves out of Auckland proper, where his previous films have unfolded, in favor of rural/pastoral settings (note that it seems one level of playfulness for Sinclair must be in not showing a sheep farm in country stereotypically recognized as "that small country with sixty million sheep!").
The Price of Milk in the context of New Zealand cinema
Certainly viewed from abroad, New Zealand cinema conjures up "serious" and dramatic images from films such as Roger Donaldson's Smash Palace (1981), Jane Campion's The Piano (1993), Lee Tamahouri's Once Were Warriors (1994), Geoff Murphy's Utu (1983) and Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures (1994). Comedy has definitely not been a strong suit in New Zealand films. And yet various shades of humor have appeared, ranging from the buddy road pranks of Geoff Murphy's Goodbye Pork Pie (1981), the sly social comedy and satire of Gaylene Preston's Ruby and Rata (1990), and the over-the-top farcical romps of Peter Jackson's Bad Taste (1986) and Braindead (1992) in which Sinclair as actor played a small role. Finally, there is the sneaky realm of the mockumentary in Peter Jackson and Costa Botes' Forgotten Silver (1998).
The Price of Milk playfully and daringly breaks beyond any of these past New Zealand comic efforts. Sinclair's film is unique and yet also indicative of a younger generation of filmmakers emerging in what we might call "post-Peter Jackson New Zealand film" phase. In this essay I wish to briefly cover both the comic narrative and characterization within the film and Harry Sinclair's unusual approach to filmmaking that led to The Price of Milk. For Sinclair has quite literally created a film that is "carnivalesque" in the sense of a celebration of freedom, fantasy, and festivity as explained by Mikhail Bakhtin when describing the world of carnival in Rabelais and the European Middle Ages. As Bakhtin notes: "They (carnival times) must be sanctioned not by the world of practical conditions but by the highest aims of human existence, that is, by the world of ideals. Without this sanction, there can be no festivity"(9). Sinclair himself has "sanctioned" his cast and crew including his fine cinematographer Leon Narby to go beyond the "world of practical conditions," as we shall discover.
No simple plot summary can do justice to this dairy romantic fairy tale. What is real is the lush green hilly countryside outside of Auckland on the North Island. And the 117 cows that Rob tends are also real, as are our main characters. The simple romance of two young country folk falling in love is also "real," as is a jealousy subplot involving Lucinda's friend, Drosophila (Willa O'Neill), who attempts to steal Rob away. But this realistic basis is infused and, yes, subverted, by a fairy tale-like dimension involving an old Maori woman (Rangi Motu) who is something of a cross between a fairy godmother and a benevolent witch. …