Director: Niki Caro
Cast: Keisha Castle-Hughes, Rawiri Paratene, Vicky Haughton, Cliff Curtis, Grant Roa, Mana Taumaunu, Rachel House
MPAA Rating: (for brief language and a momentary drug reference)
Running Time: 1:41
Release Date: 6/6/03 (limited); 7/4/03 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik
Writer/director Niki Caro's Whale Rider is the closest thing to discovering a vibrant new cinematic voice that I've seen in years. It's an enchanting fable about how modern sensibilities have the potential to both trivialize and rejuvenate the customs of old, but Caro maintains a direct focus on her characters and their culture to give it a deep emotional relevance and resonance. This is only her second feature (her first Memory & Desire was never released in the US), but already Caro shows a distinct style, a keen eye for striking imagery (helped, of course, by cinematographer Leon Narbey), and a strong sense of storytelling. She uses close-ups—letting us see the characters for who they really are—and panoramas—establishing the landscape and the melding of nature and modernity—to great effect. The characters are developed to the point that they still exist in the world of melodrama but are wholly believable, which lends itself perfectly to the fantastical elements of the film and helps bring those elements down to earth to make them seem a natural part of the proceedings. Caro's screenplay (based on a novel by Witi Ihimaera) tells a specific and simple story and—like all the best storytellers—brings out the universal human themes in its fiber.
The film's prologue introduces us to a Maori family. Tradition tells of Paikea, who arrived in New Zealand on the back of a whale over a thousand years ago, and the Maori are his descendants. The first-born son of the chief in each generation is the successor to leadership. Koro (Rawiri Paratene) is the current head of the tribe, and his eldest son Porourangi (Cliff Curtis) has just become the father of twins—a boy and a girl. Tragically, the boy and mother die in childbirth, but Porourangi names his daughter Paikea to spite the tactlessness of his father. Years later, Paikea (Keisha Castle-Hughes) has grown up under the care of Koro and his wife Flowers (Vicky Haughton). She is now called Pai, both as a nickname and perhaps as an attempt on the part of Koro to hide the perceived disrespect to his ancestors. Porourangi has left the tribe to become an artist in Germany and seldom sees his daughter. When he does return, it is only briefly, and the pregnancy of his girlfriend abroad means that he may not return. With no sign of a future chief, the fate of the Maori is in question. Koro begins to teach the first-born sons of the tribe the ancient ways in hopes of finding one who can take over.
At a certain level, Caro handles the material as reverently as one would the tale of an important religious, political, or social leader, which only makes sense. We are watching the unfolding story of a possible prophet, leader, and unifier. As the plot develops, we begin to sense events that could become anecdotes in the future. At one point, Pai has the opportunity to leave with father, but she sees a whale and is called to stay. Koro tells her how a rope, with its interconnected strands, is like the Maoris, only for it to break. Koro ironically calls the broken rope useless and tosses it aside, and Pai repairs it and uses it start her grandfather's boat engine. The metaphor is clear and unmistakable, but it fits unpretentiously within the film's allegorical intentions. The society is in need of reform; the old ways are dying out. During a class recital, the young audience is restless and dismissive. The modern trend of apathy has overtaken the community. Pai's uncle Rawiri (Grant Roa) was once a champion at combat with a staff, but he has disintegrated into hanging out with his friends and girlfriend, drinking, playing pool, and smoking marijuana.
There's an obvious generational gap that helps provoke the apathy (Is that an oxymoron?), and it is never more apparent than in the relationship between Pai and Koro, which provides the majority of the conflict and heart of the film. The gender gap between the two goes hand-in-hand with and is emphasized by the generational barrier. The Maori are a patriarchal people, and the concept of a female leader is beyond Koro's comprehension. For as many signs as are revealed, his inflexibility remains constant. When he begins to teach the sons of the community, he tells Pai to sit in the back, and when she refuses, he forces her to leave. Pai learns the knowledge and skills on her own, either by sneaking on the school grounds or finding those willing to help her. She wants more than anything to fulfill her part within her culture and goes about it by any means necessary, but when Koro discovers her, his stubbornness blinds him even to her dedication. There is no doubt that Koro loves his granddaughter. There are touching moments early on in which we see the two of them riding a bike together, and when he believes she is leaving with her father, he comes very close to breaking his stone-faced shell.
Absentee fathers play a large part in the social structure as we see it. There's Porourangi, whom we sympathize with to a certain degree. He does not want to abandon his daughter, but he does not feel a part of his tribe. There's another child in Koro's class whose father comes to a presentation of the children's newly learned abilities, but he only stays for the beginning when his son demonstrates. Despite the pleadings of his son, he leaves with his friends, who are clearly a part of the apathetic group to which Rawiri and his friends belong. The separated parent-child relationship strengthens our appreciation for and comprehension of Pai and Koro's unspoken, complicated bond, as do the performances of Keisha Castle-Hughes and Rawiri Paratene. Paratene embodies a strength of will and character and presents a study of deliberate, character-defining stillness. Castle-Hughes gives a dynamic performance, made all the more surprising and affecting because it is her film debut and she is only thirteen. She carries the film and involves us completely in her character's progress.The film's climax involves a supernatural crisis that starts off as spectacle but quickly becomes about the impact of the event on the community, and just as soon as that happens, it adeptly drifts back into the realm of fantasy and legend. Whale Rider does this so often and so exceedingly well that it has the power to floor. It's a wonderful, uplifting film about the healing power of communal growth and adaptation.
Copyright © 2003 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.