Whale Rider is about a young girl challenged by her grandfather’s firm belief about their tribe’s tradition, and in turn diverting the community’s old ways. I is a story abou leadership and family tradition. The storyteller’s name is Paikea (played by Keisha Castle-Hughes), or Pai in this film, narrates how “in the old days there was an emptiness waiting to be filled up. ” Paikea rode a whale when the boat rolled while leaving Hawaii. Her people, the present-day Maori of New Zealand, are waiting for the first born of the new generation, the descendant who would be chief of their tribe.
Pai’s mother died while giving birth to Pai and her twin brother. Unfortunately, her twin brother died together with their mother. Porourangi (played by Cliff Curtis), Pai’s father, was greatly saddened with this tragedy. His family is the last living scion of their ancient tribe and it’s their family’s obligation to produce sons who will be raised to be the chief of their village. He has long since let his father down on being the next chief. He chose to seek opportunity far from their land.
The only chance that Pai’s grandfather, Koro (played by Rawiri Paratene) sees to have a successor for his throne is through his son’s son. But since Pai’s twin brother also died, he is thorn with loving his granddaughter and being pressured to produce an heir throne. To despise his father’s power, Porourangi named his daughter Pai, as in Paikea, after their tribe’s legendary leader. More so, Koro didn’t like the fact with his choice of name. Porourangi left his village for Europe to seek life aside from living a tribal life, he left his daughter Pai under his parent’s care to raise his daughter.
The main story is focused on Koro’s obsession to find a male heir to be the chief and lead their tribe. He then decided to train all first-born sons in the tribe’s old, warrior ways to find the next leader of the tribe. Only first-born sons are allowed to attend. Being her grandfather’s granddaughter, Pai inherited his grandfaher’s determination. She managed to find ways to learn what her grandfather is teaching the boys of their village. She would peek into the classroom window, or listen from the side of the school.
She even seek help from her Uncle Rawiri (played by Grant Roa) to teach her the ancient art of stick fighting. Koro is torn between his love for his granddaughter and the pressure that nags him to find a new chief for the tribe. He picks her up from school everyday on his bicycle, giving her as much love as he can. Yet his heart still can’t get over the fact that she’s a girl and can never be the male heir of their tribe. The more Koro and his wife Nanny (played by Vicky Haughton) takes care of Pai, the more reason Koro believes that things started going wrong for the community when Pai was born.
The half-finished canoe, built by young Porourangi, sits atop a hill by Koro’s house, nags at both Koro and his wife Nanny Flowers. One day, Pai asked her grandfather to help her on a speech she’s writing for school about her people’s history. “As Koro is trying to fix a boat engine that won’t start, he told the story of the Maori people with the end of a string as an example. He tells Pai that the rope is weaved tightly together and that these are threads of Paikea. Like the rope, if the Maori people are weaved together tightly then their line remains strong, since each thread is a thread to their ancestors.
” Then as he is showing the strength of the rope, it snapped in two. As Koro goes to fetch tools to fix the broken rope, Pai took the initiative to tie the broken strands together, wrapping the string around the engine, and it worked again. But Koro scolded her instead and tells her to never touch the engine again. Koro’s plan failed to train a future tribe’s chief and this led him into a terrible depression. Koro prayed to the spirits through chanting, and without his knowledge, so does Pai chants too.
The spirits listened to Pai. For that night, when Pai delivered her speech at school, she talked about how “we can learn that if the knowledge is given to everyone, then we can have lots of leaders. And soon everyone will be strong. Not just the ones who have been chosen. Because sometimes even if you are the leader and you need to be strong, you can get tired… ” During her speech, a tragedy occurred that affected everyone in the town. The town joined together to solve this problem that has presented itself. ***
The twelve-year-old lead character in this film Pai’s moment is very true, heart-warming and wonderful. Watching her play Pai you feel yourself playing the character. Her witty but wise spirit showed off the screen. She has some beautiful scenes with all of her co-actors, who played their share of great performances. Yet Rawiri Paratene’s character Koro is exasperating to watch, he does an excellent job harmonizing the intricate feelings of love for Pai with the authentic misery and purpose he feels over his tribe.
Vicky Haughton as Pai’s grandmother and Cliff Curtis as Porourangi also created great emotional force and depth in their characters. Grant Roa who played Pai’s Uncle Rawiri and Mana Taumaunu as his girlfriend Hemi, also did a wonderful role complementing respect with Koro’s ways, while at the same time helping Pai mature as a person. Many local Maori were cast in the film and they are genuinely at home in their surroundings and that genuineness comes through on film. Since the actors all did a fantastic job, much credit is given to Director/Screenwriter Niki Caro.
The film is very compassionate and very human. That just as the tribal life is conventionally much slower than the hectically fast-paced contemporary world, Whale Rider’s storytelling didn’t fail to reflect this slower pace. I highly suggest everybody to see this film who wanted relaxing film about the union of tribal with the modern in a way that in the end leaves you feeling optimistic about mankind.
Ihimaera, Witi (2002). Whale Rider the movie. Filmed 2003.