Not just the words through the movie, the narration by Kahu, but the music that moves with the shadows and light in the ocean, has an overwhelming emotion with which the viewer may identify. When the narration begins, it is Kahu who says, “There was no gladness when I was born”. These words are witnesses of events to happen. This is no story which begins with joy, but a tale where great hardship must happen first so that when the joy does come, the audience knows what a battle it was to get it, and how much more rewarding it is after such tribulation.
Kahu’s story, her birth, marks the death of her mother and twin brother. Her twin was supposed to be the next leader of the Maori tribe. Her name is also an affront, her great grandfather believes, to the faith and tradition of the tribe. It is a blasphemy to their ancestor the great Whale Rider, who was male. The altercations which arise between Kahu’s father and great grandfather isn’t mainly between one’s acceptance of a belief and the other’s denial of it, but also of Kahu’s mother’s wish to name the child after that great ancestor, and so begin Kahu on her journey.
The powerful moments in this movie are the singing in the Maori tongue. When Kahu sings to the whales, when Koro sings, and especially the shattering feeling of love that is conveyed through their singing during a funeral. There is a specific bond in the words. They carry their dead with their songs, which seem to be saying we will find you soon, we will join you in our ancestral home. The entire film is teeming with the concepts and ideologies of ancestors.
When Koro is fixing an engine outside one day, Kahu comes up to him asking questions about her ancestors, for a school project she’s working on. He tells her that the link of their ancestors is as strong as this piece of rope, just as the whales are strong and powerful. With that strength of the entire lineage of ancestor’s the rope can never be broken. It is significant then that the rope breaks and while Koro is trying to find a new one, Kahu fixes it and fixes the engine. This is the predecessor of events to come.
Kahu’s link in the chain is the link, which is the strongest, the one that will again unite the ancestors and whales to the needs of the current culture. Another signpost in the story is that of Kahu’s father’s ship. The Te Waka is abandoned by her father; his ever increasing lack of faith in his people and his culture and his continual separation from Koro because he can’t be what he wants, has escalated since his wife’s death. Kahu possesses the ship not only because it is her father’s but also because she knows she will need it some day to fulfill part of her destiny.
While her father leaves for Germany, Kahu stays because she views the ocean, and beneath it’s pellucid depths she feels the presence of the whales returning. Koro has the misfortune of believing that when his great grand daughter was born, that’s when things went wrong. He is so hard on her, and so loyal to a tradition that discriminates against those kin that he should be loving, not ignoring. It is on her quick return that Kahu wants more than ever to be involved in the school Koro sets up to train young men in the Maori ways.
She feels the intrinsic power of the whales calling to her, and she knows she is meant to be preparing, but Koro, ever bull headed, rejects her presence at the school and at home. She is made that first day of the school ceremony to go sit in the back because she is a girl, she, being just as bull headed as he, stays in her seat. So begins the ostracizing of her from her Paka. Kahu or Paikea, begins to shadow the boys attending the school, to learn what tidbits she can about fighting, about language. When she discovers her uncle was a champion fighter of the ancient ways she begins her trial of learning.
She starts her regime of learning how to be a leader, to be strong, to be a warrior. She is a warrior, she is just waiting for her people to catch up and understand what she already is, what she was born to be. Her uncle’s help in the matter reveals a tender relationship and a common goal of wanting Koro to accept his second son (in the movie, in the novel he’s a grandson) and to begin the love that Kahu needs to be filled with, because she’s needing him to help her as well as he needs her to help him.
It is because of this inspired interest of Paikea in her uncle’s art, that he begins to run. A very humorous moment is when Koro sees him on the beach early in the morning in a sweat suit, jogging along after years of neglect to his body. All in all, the movie is very compelling both in narration, dialogue and the plot. It is the singing, the landscape, and the inclusion of the Maori language, which makes this film a New Zealand work of art. The history of the people is given fair study and sincerity.
The union of the people at the end of the movie becomes part myth and part reality in the components of beached whales, and the resurrection of Paikea in a young girl, riding the bull whale out to sea to save her culture. The surprising factor in the movie is the maturity of Kahu, her diligent advances in the Maori culture and the way in which she tells the story is beyond her keen, but it works, her sad voice over such a beautiful landscape is compelling and honest. Kahu makes the film about a legendery myth, a reality waiting to happen.