In God’s Hands

(Zalman King, USA, 1998)


When will films stop introducing characters by freezing the frame and typing the person’s name solemnly onto the screen? In God’s Hands adds an even heavier touch to this cliché: alongside the name we get various vital statistics, a spotted CV, and humble tags such as Surf Legend.

Surfing movies are an undervalued genre. In their frequent earnestness and eccentric mish-mash of elements – New Age spirituality, teenage hi-jinx, covert homo-eroticism, all-American success ethic – they deserve to be considered alongside some of the more intriguing martial arts or war films.

In God’s Hands gives us a typical trio of wanderers who trail around the globe looking for that ultimate wave. Shane (Patrick Shane Dorian) is the young superstar of the group – cool, stoic, shunning the crass commercialism of the surfing circuit. Mickey (Matt George) is the older, sage figure, haunted by fears of imminent burnout. Keoni (Matty Liu) is the fool kid, all energy and no wisdom. The film gains in authenticity from having many real-life surfing personalities both in front of and behind the camera.

It is easy to ridicule this movie – especially its many awesome, supposedly deep one-liners: "We build temples to adrenalin"; "Until that wave comes, we’re just guys waiting for a train"; "All over the world, people are returning to their tribes". An unintentionally hilarious narrator (Shaun Tomson) wanders about muttering such pearls of insider wisdom into a tape recorder for the benefit of any uninitiated viewers. My favourite moment comes when our central trio meet a bunch of even more fiercely dedicated surfers who proclaim: "We train all day, every day – that’s reality".

The film’s presentation of non-American cultures is, however, far from reality. These surfer dudes never seem to stray very far from the shoreline wherever they go, and the movie exactly mirrors their limited social consciousness. Every place (Bali, Hawaii, Africa) is rendered identically: in a swirling montage of jungle drums, feverish dances, adoring women and guys strumming guitars.

Yet, for all the spurious mysticism and dubious ‘respect for indigenous people’ which the film preaches, there is no denying that it captures well the intense, nomadic lifestyle of the fanatical surfing community and its curious subculture.

Director and co-writer Zalman King (famous for such glossy erotica as his Red Shoe Diaries TV series) is an underrated, accomplished artist. He gives this project the dreamy rhythm and mood it requires – making sure there are enough attractions to please less meditative surfing fans.

In God’s Hands is not a rousing, cathartic surfing movie that builds to a grand finale, in the vein of Big Wednesday (1978). Its philosophical air and melancholic undertone bring it nearer to the films of Takeshi Kitano (A Scene at the Sea, 1991) or some ancient Romantic ode to the sublime terrors of the ocean and the lure of a death-wish.

For all its sententious chatter about purity, sacrifice, risk and mastery, however, it still manages to be an oddly compelling entertainment.

MORE King: Lake Consequence

© Adrian Martin January 1999

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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