Reprinted from the July 2003 VP.
Rated PG-13 Running time 1 hr. 41 min.
Our content rating (1-10): Violence 2; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.
If this were a truly just world Whale Rider would be packing them in at the cineplexes along with Legally Blonde 2. Both are concerned with the empowerment of a young woman in a patriarchal society, but the New Zealand film attains a depth and a power to stir up deep emotions in an audience that the makers of the Hollywood movie can only dream of. It is the kind of film that transports us to a different culture and enables us to see that which universally connects all cultures. The film is based on Maori Witi Ihimaera’s novel, the story suggested by an ancient Maori legend in which their ancestor, Paikea, was transported to New Zealand’s east coast on the back of a whale.
The film begins with the wife of Porourangi (Cliff Curtis) giving birth to twins, a boy and a girl. Something goes wrong, however, and the mother and infant boy die. In his grief the father decides to name the girl child Pai, after the name of their mythical ancestor Paikea. His father Koro (Rawiri Paratene), upset over bestowing a male name upon a girl, tries to dissuade him, but Porourangi persists. Soon he is leaving to pursue an art career in Europe, turning his back on the heritage in which he would become the next chief. This leaves Koro and his wife Nanny Flowers (Vicky Haughton) to care for their granddaughter. Koro makes no bones about wishing that the male child had survived, at one time saying in Pai’s range of hearing, “A girl is no use to me.” And yet he does become deeply attached to her, regularly giving her rides on his bicycle and holding her in loving arms. But when she is 12 Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes) begins to seek out her heritage and to question the patriarchal tradition that favors boys over girls.
Koro rebuffs Pai’s attempts to learn more of the tribal heritage. Instead, he gathers together the 12-year-old boys of the village to teach them the ways of the ancients and the rituals and skills of a Maori warrior, in the hope that he might find among them a suitable candidate for the next tribal chief. He pointedly excludes his granddaughter. She lingers near the group, taking in as much information as she can hear, and even picks up a pole to practice fighting. She practices with one of the boys in a mock duel, but is caught by Koro and reprimanded. Still undaunted, she talks with Grandmother Nanny, who tells her that before he put on so much weight, her Uncle Rawiri (Grant Roa) was quite skilled in the martial ways of the Maoris. He is reluctant at first to go against the wishes of his father, but sensing the sincerity and determination of his niece, he agrees to tutor her. Thus begins in earnest Pai’s campaign to carve a new path for herself and gain the respect of her grandfather.
Niki Caro, who both wrote and directed the film, refuses to follow the formulaic path of two other films with similar themes—Legally Blonde 2 and Bend It Like Beckham. Just when you think you see how something is going to go, Caro takes the film in another direction. Two cases in point: Pai’s father Porourangi returns to the village, raising the hopes of Koro and Pai that he has come back to stay. He hasn’t, he tells them, having found his destiny as an internationally acclaimed artist in Europe. Koro can scarcely listen to this. Then, we see Pai’s schoolteacher who has been teaching the children the ancient dances of the people. She is a lovely woman, and still single, so Koro brings her to his house where his son is showing slides of his art works. Ah, a romance in the offing—but no, Porourangi drops the news that he is engaged to a European woman. Koro gets up even though the presentation is not over, and escorts the teacher home.
Later, Pai is the lead dancer in a school performance of a Maori ceremony. She has carefully written a speech that she hopes will win over the heart of Koro, if he will come. Nanny and the rest of the family and village are there when Pai haltingly begins her speech, but the chair beside the grandmother is empty. We expect, as with a hundred other such stories, Koro to make a late appearance just in time. Instead, something else happens, something for which Pai had prayed but which turns out differently, potentially disastrous, and which Koro blames on her. The mystical way in which this is resolved, with Pai offering to make the supreme sacrifice for her people, has moved audiences deeply—and will you, too.
All members of the family should see this fabulous film. Although a girl is the central character, it is the kind of film that males will take to as well. The film can be a wonderful legacy that adults can bestow upon their children, especially their daughters. Early on I made a note of a comment by one of the characters—I think it was by Porourangi to Pai about his father Koro, but I am not certain: “He needs a prophet.” “What is that?” the girl asks. “Someone to lead our people out of darkness and make everything all right.” Make you think of anything in the Judeo-Christian scriptures?