Whale Rider tells a simple tale, and tells it simply – but don’t let that lead you to think it’s shallow or ‘easy’. Based on a story by Maori novelist Witi Ihimaera, with the script written by director Niki Caro, it’s set in a small contemporary village on the far East coast of New Zealand’s North Island, an almost exclusively Maori community. Unlike Once Were Warriors, the massive international hit exploring contemporary urban Maori culture, this is not a tale of a community that’s lost touch with its roots – far from it. The Ngati Konohi of Whangara is steeped in its traditions. Rituals and protocols dating back a thousand years are part of everyday life (and don’t let any reviewers tell you this part of the movie is overdone – Maori really do follow this rigid code in their official events) and they are strongly connected to their ancestors.
The fishing village of Whangara has a specific local legend – it was established by Paikea, the whale rider, who was rescued from drowning on his journey from the legendary Maori homelands of Haiwiki, by a whale who carried him on his back to Aotearoa when his waka (canoe) sank. The Ngati Konohi have been led ever since by the descendants of Paikea in a single unbroken line.
Despite this rootedness, however the Whangara community is as marginalised in its way as that portraying in Once Were Warriors, but in this case it is divorced from modern New Zealand, struggling in rural poverty and obscurity.
The film opens with Porourangi (Cliff Curtis), the eldest son of the current leader Koro Apirana (Rawiri Paratene) at Gisborne hospital with his wife, who is in labour. Porourangi has been groomed for leadership, and he is expected to follow Koro, with his own son following him. Between them they are supposed to lead Ngati Konohi back to prosperity and happiness. Then disaster strikes. As events unfold, we hear a girl’s voice saying "When I was born, my twin brother died and took our mother with him. He died," she repeats, "and I didn't".
Koro arrives at the hospital with his wife, Flowers (Vicky Haughton), and second son and enters the room in which a female kaumatua – a tribal elder - is performing a mourning chant for Porourangi’s wife. This is a crystallising moment in the film, as Koro alienates his distraught son, asking “Where is the boy?” without a glance at his daughter-in-law.
After he has completed his ritual chant for the boy, Flowers forces Koro to acknowledge the living child, who stops crying as she’s placed into his arms. He urges the grief-stricken Porourangi to start again, but the young man rebuffs him, and leaves Whangara to work in Europe, turning his traditional carving skills to more mainstream sculpture. Before he leaves however, he horrifies Koro by naming the girl Paikea – a sacred name hitherto reserved for leaders: all boys.
The story then leaps forward 11 years. Koro has developed a deep affection for his granddaughter (Keisha Castle-Hughes), and he takes her around, riding her on the crossbar of his bike. She, in her turn, adores him. She’s an attractive, determined and intelligent girl – if somewhat bossy -- and like her grandfather she has a deep affinity with the old ways and the ancient spirits, but despite this, and despite the love between them, Koro still has his heart set on Porourangi returning to lead the village, and after him a son – he even has a bride selected. The girl-child, he only ever calls Pai, denying her the dignity and power of her full name, and she is always aware that on some level she is a disappointment to him – something less than he wants.
Koro’s rejection of Pai becomes clearer when Porourangi returns home for a visit but makes it clear that he has settled in Europe – he has a pregnant lover there, and has no intention of bringing his new family back to New Zealand. When he leaves, he takes Pai with him, but she is drawn home after only a day, called by the ancestral spirits of the whales, perhaps.
What she returns to, however, is heartbreak. Robbed of his hopes, Koro is starting to search for a new leader for the Ngati Konohi, and opening a school to train potentials – but he’s only looking at boys, the first born sons. Pai is forbidden to undertake training.
So she goes behind his back, listening at windows, helped by her grandmother and uncle – Koro’s younger son, Rawiri (Grant Roa), who is as blighted by Koro’s disappointment as she is.
In many ways, the resolution of the film is predictable, as Pai struggles to achieve her destiny, but there is a depth to the story that goes beyond the plot. It’s a coming of age tale, but Pai’s awakening is spiritual, rather than sexual, and in her growing self-awareness she fully encompasses the fact that pursuing the path she must, she risks losing her grandfather’s love forever.
It isn’t a feminist film. The message is more personal than “girls can do anything boys can” although that’s part of it. It’s the story of a single child fulfilling their own destiny, and it could equally well be about an Indian child overcoming caste restrictions, or a Native American overcoming class barriers. It’s a universal and fundamental story of building on where you come from to get you where you need to go – using your traditions to take you forward, not hold you back.
The setting is arresting – New Zealand’s beautiful landscapes form a backdrop for a depressed and squalid village – gardens of small isolated houses growing as many wrecked cars and buses as flowers; the location is the real Whangara, accurately reflecting many small East Coast communities. This is interspersed with footage of the undersea world of whales (digital, though you’d never know it) who emphasise the history, reflect the film’s spiritual aspects, and, in the end, become an integral part of the action.
The performances of the ensemble cast in this film are outstanding. Rawiri Paratene is stern and unbending, but conveys the conflict between his hidebound outlook and his love for the child with powerful restraint. Vicky Haughton is superb in the role of Flowers, the strong centre which keeps the family, somehow, from being torn apart by the forces pulling it in different directions. Grant Roa and Cliff Curtis are both excellent showing, in completely different ways, their frustrated love and simmering resentment for the father they just aren’t good enough for – Roa acting the clowning layabout, Curtis the angry exile.
It’s Keisha Castle-Hughes that lifts the film to the heights, however, and she is extraordinary. I’ve never seen a child actor better - she doesn’t so much act the role of Pai as live it. Every nuance of a very demanding part is spot on, joy, disappointment, desperation, resignation, determination; you can’t help but empathise with her, ache with her. I’m not a particularly overwrought type, and can’t remember the last time I wept like this at a movie, and I wasn’t the only one in the audience busily wiping away tears.
Although there’s plenty of humour scattered through Whale Rider, and it’s a film that should appeal to entire families from the age of 8 up, it’s not a light Disneyfied piece of cinema – if you went to the movies intending to watch X-Men or the like and couldn’t get in, you probably wouldn’t be in the right frame of mind to see this as a substitute, but on a day that you’re in the mood for something really substantial, with the genuine emotion at the centre and the effects as a subsidiary instead of the other way around, choose this – you won’t be disappointed.
There’s a reason it’s the most decorated foreign film since Life is Beautiful --it won 2003 Canal Plus Audience Award at the Rotterdam Film Festival, the World Cinema Audience Award at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival and the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2002 – it’s wonderful.