Whale Rider

By David Mumpower

July 14, 2003

C'mon, everybody, let's do the Chicken Dance!

If a picture tells a thousand words, a movie runs at 24 pictures per second, and a 105 minute film is comprised of 151,200 frames, then a piece of celluloid should tell a story worthy of 151.2 million words. Whale Rider is the first movie I have ever seen that achieves this mark.

Based on the Witi Ihimaera children's novel, Whale Rider tells the story of Maori people living in New Zealand who are struggling to survive in the modern world. Like many spiritual people, they are caught between the beliefs that have been passed down for many generations from their ancestors and a world which appears to offer no safe harbor to even the truest of believers.

Such a man is Koro, the village elder who leads his people. His life as Chief has been comprised of many disappointments, all of which are centered upon his faith that one day a descendant of his will ride a whale, thereby leading the people into a new era of prosperity. So forceful is his conviction in this eventuality that he has wound up distanced from his wife and both of his sons. His marriage has been a struggle because of his phallocentric belief that the men of his society are the rulers while the women are second class citizens. His schism with his sons, however, stems from something else.

Since the oldest son, Porourangi, had been a child, he had been weighed down by the contraints of primogeniture. The responsibility his father Koro had always impressed upon him was that one day he would ascend the water beast and lead his people. The fact that this never happened made Koro look at him with disappointment. The impending birth of his first children, twins, should be cause for celebration as the burden is lifted from him and hope passed down to a new generation. Tragically, this dream is shattered at the start of the film as both Porourangi's wife and one of his children does not survive the birthing process. Instead, only an infant girl proves to be strong enough to live through the evening.

In this moment of tragedy, Koro's dream of a new hope is crushed. He steps past the unimportant female survivor and says a prayer for the stillborn prince. It is only when his wife forces the girl upon him that he even acknowledges her presence. When he confronts his son, he is not at all sympathetic about the plight which has fallen his first born. It is in this reckless, thoughtless moment that he loses the warmth of his son, and sends him off to live a life on foreign soil away from the homeland which has brought him nothing but pain and disappointment. And it is in this moment that we are first introduced to the spirit which will comprise the heart of the film, as Porourangi ferociously tells his disappointed father that he has named the girl Paikea, the same name of the man who originally led the Maori to New Zealand. This is sacrilege to Koro as Pai, the narrator, bitterly describes that her birth has brought no joy to the island.

The other son, Rawiri, is equally disenchanted with his father but for a different reason. He is the second child and therefore his presence is largely useless. It only through descriptions of the past that we learn of this man's history, but it was clear that he was a boy of promise and passion before he matured to realize that there were never any hopes or dreams made for him. His life has become one of gluttony and pleasure abuse as there are no expectations made for him and thereby nothing he may hope to achieve. He has married a lewd if kind-hearted woman and they live an existence of casual indulgence. Koro is naturally disgusted by his son, never recognizing the blame he has in Rawiri's upbringing. It is a cautionary tale that plays well as the underlying subtext for his relationship with his granddaughter. First time actor Grant Roa was cast primarily because of his residency in the area where the movie was filmed yet he shows more acting instinct here than several rising Hollywood talents ever will (I'm looking at you, Paul Walker).

As with Rawiri, Koro immediately dismisses Pai, née Paikea (calling her that name would be sacrilegious to Koro), as a potential heir to his throne. No woman may ever lead men, after all. Due to this, his sovereign instinct drives him to bring all the first born sons of the village together in a new school to train one of them to become the new chosen one. To his chagrin, his granddaughter shows up and refuses to take a back seat to the young boys of the village. His stubbornness in sending her to the back of the room is matched only by her own in refusing to acknowledge that there is anything inherently inferior in her which should require her to act with deference to her male counterparts. It is within this act of defiance that the entire story of Whale Rider lies.

From the opening moments of the movie until the end, we know that in Pai (as portrayed by Keisha Castle-Hughes in the best job of acting I have seen in over two years), there beats the heart of a lion. We see through her interaction with her grandfather that she is just like him. He is driven by his cause to the point that he has become a zealot, blind to any and all reason. It is why his marriage is in jeopardy and why he has poor relationships with his children. Even so, he finds himself drawn to this girl who he has shunned from birth, yet each time he is forced to choose between her and what he believes to be right, he denies her completely. Their relationship is one of the most painful and haunting in recent cinema. Through the eyes of a 12-year-old girl, we witness a man driven by what he feels is destiny being counteracted every step of the way by his young charge who is similarly pre-ordained to be the Paul Atreides of the ocean for her people.

The face-offs between tribal chief and scion are the meat of Whale Rider, with New Zealand comic Rawiri Paratene giving one of the most ferocious and brave performances I've ever seen. He feels no need to redeem Koro as a likable man, but instead portrays him as a driven leader and a firm disciple of utilitarianism. No one, not his wife, his children or even Pai, the child who makes his eyes sparkle, is shown any favortism when it comes to his raison d'Ítre. His merciless pursuit of what he believes to be his destiny stands in stark opposition to the fate of his granddaughter, who knows both the truth regarding her predetermined providence and the unfortunate impact it will have upon her paternal role model's belief system.

Despite the differences between them, she chooses to love him with a reckless abandon in the hopes that the purity of her devotion will bridge the chasm between his expectations and the reality her presence will create. The desperation she demonstrates in her desire to receive his affection is one of the most impressive representations of a child seeking the approval of a parent ever filmed. All of us recognize this pursuit and empathize with our heroine as she stubbornly walks through all the walls presented by her role model as he tries to distance himself from her. I defy anyone to watch the scene where she presents him with an invitation to the school play and the following sequence that occurs at the school without feeling at least some semblance of emotional support for Pai.

Such is the deliberate pacing of the movie, though, that while we might desire a quick payoff between the two, writer/director Niki Caro always teases with it but then pulls it away at the last moment. This constant frustration serves only to further attach the audience to the emotional well-being of both Pai and particularly her grandfather, a man whose pain desperately needs to be eased. My wording here is not accidental as the last time a relationship of this nature was portrayed this successfully was in Field of Dreams. If you are anything like me, you will spend the body of the film rooting for Pai and Koro to finally have their version of a game of catch.

I could gush on for much longer but there is little point. When push comes to shove, all that I need to say about Whale Rider is that it is the best film I have seen in a movie theater since Almost Famous; moreover, the twin performances of Rawiri Paratene as Koro and Keisha Castle-Hughes as Pai are as good as any in recent cinema. Stating the obvious, Whale Rider is one of the best movie experiences of my life and I strongly urge you to see it as soon as you possibly can. And bring a lot of tissue paper just in case. Our movie theater was Niagara Falls during several key moments.

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