dir: Niki Caro
Whale Rider is certainly a touching, sweet film, but people shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that it’s a children’s movie. It is a story of far greater complexity and depth than what one comes to expect from films that seem to be aimed at the kiddie market.
It’s clear, at least to me that there is much more going on here. As well, dismissing it as a glib post-feminist treatise about how wonderful girl power is would be doing the film a disservice, and would denigrate the work all the people involved put into crafting this little gem of a film. It is not a masterpiece by any estimation. It is however a sweet film about a little girl finding her destiny and teaching an old man that the links between the past, present and future can be strongest in the places we are least able to see.
You have to like a film where an old dog learns new tricks. Too often are we saddled with naïve, self-serving stories about old people whose wisdom and experience exist as a beacon, a lighthouse sanctuary for the young above the treacherous shoals of modern life. From that vantage point they can dish out little slices of pious non sequiturs to the thirsty ears of stupid young people and make audiences go “Awww” as if Forrest Gump’s in the house again. Personally I think it’s bullshit. I’ve known plenty of old people, and for each one that has experienced and tasted life, and actually is wise and able to transfer that wisdom to others, you have hundreds of the aged whose most profound thought is figuring out when to get their colostomy bag emptied. Anyone that’s worked in a hospital or in an old folk’s home knows exactly what I’m talking about.
But the old dog in this film, Koro (played superbly by Rawiri Paratene) is a genuinely wise and venerable elder. That wisdom and experience doesn’t prevent him from acting the stubborn old fool, however, until it’s almost too late to come back. Though gruff and sometimes nasty, at least for myself he never stopped being a sympathetic character. The reason is that his actions are motivated from a sense of the profound importance of his people’s heritage, the all-encompassing nature of the legends of his people, and the dissolution of that validity through two factors: a) the abandonment of the old ways in modern life and b), the lack of an heir to the heritage of their creator, Paikea, from whom the tribal leaders (mythically) descend from. And from whom our main characters descend as well.
Losing her mother and twin brother at birth, Paikea (Keisha Castle Hughes) grows up in the shadow of her grandfather’s angry disappointment and her father’s abandonment. Her father Porourangi (Cliff Curtis), devastated by the loss of his wife, leaves New Zealand to pursue his career as a sculptor overseas. Thus Paikea is left to her grandma and grandpa to be reared knowing that her grandad wishes that she’d died and her infant brother had survived. The leader must be a male descendant, naturally. Better she be drowned like an unwanted kitten thrown into the river in a sack full of rocks. Perhaps not quite.
Koro loves his grand daughter, it’s clear from the outset, but he seems to feel so profoundly betrayed by fate that he cannot accept her for who she is. She exists as a physical reminder of his failure to ensure the survival of his people. Thus his quest begins to find a new leader amongst the young boys of his people.
Since the book that the film is based on, and indeed its author (Witi Itimaera) are from a Maori background, understandably there is much of the culture represented in the film. To many it may seem wild and new, others may see it as parallel to any other story dealing with indigenous people from any culture: gee aren’t they wonderful and so in touch with Mother Earth and aren’t we city slicker modern people foolish and materialistic etc bloody etc.
This film doesn’t condescend, nor does it patronise. Of course it does delve into ideas of spirituality and mysticism that the more literal-minded might find unendurable, but the aspects dealing with characteristics of Maori culture aren’t cleaned up or renovated for modern audiences. Of course when talking about this film everyone naturally mentions “Once Were Warriors” as well in the same breath, I say naturally because it’s usually the only other film non-New Zealander audiences have seen. Both films showcase aspects of the Maori culture without turning into dull documentaries. But both movies as well have stories that go beyond the cultural heritage of the protagonists.
As such people may know very little about the culture. I can’t presume to have an exhaustive knowledge of their history or their culture, but I have spent enough time drinking with guys with tattooed faces and 300 pounds of solid muscle on their frames to have gleaned a few things. For there seem to be at least as many New Zealanders and Maoris in Australia as there are in New Zealand. I remember a particular time in the 90s where every pub or club you went to in Melbourne or Sydney had at least 1 Maori working as a bouncer. The reason being most people knew not to mess with a Maori bouncer because, let’s face it, it’s not like they were reluctant to put their ham sized fists through some idiot’s head.
But that is obviously a generalisation and a stereotype. What it derives from is several crucial perceptions that have to do with the Maori and culture: it is not, strictly speaking, indigenous to the islands that comprise the nation of New Zealand (which they call Aotearoa). The Maori people migrated from somewhere else in Polynesia at around 700 AD. It was, simplistically speaking a warrior culture. Of course when European colonisation started it had the same effect there that it had everywhere else, where the population was decimated by disease, booze and guns.
But they are unbowed. Maori people (the word ‘maori’ meaning simply ‘the local people’), being warriors consider themselves unbeaten, despite having their population halved in the various wars against the settlers between 1840 and 1870. The problems they face today are the problems that people everywhere face: massive unemployment, crime, drug and alcohol addiction, poverty, domestic abuse and everything else that makes life so much fun for so many people. One of the most (internationally) famous novels regarding Maori culture, Keri Hulme’s The Bone People, goes the post-colonial route detailing the destruction of the modern Maori soul by the ‘lightning’ of European colonisation. That’s not the path taken here.
Whale Rider gives us an unapologetic, unvarnished glimpse at the Maori culture (not lifestyle), where tribal leader Koro sees his people in decline because they have fallen out of favour with the gods and ancestors. He sees that everything has gone wrong for his people from the moment Paikea was born. The growing number of signs and portents point to this disfavour, and the only solution he can see is in finding a new leader in the young boys of his tribe. Of course, Pai, her grandmother and we the audience clearly know that the next leader of his tribe is right under his nose, he’s just too stubborn and set in his ways to see it.
Bound by tradition that says the leadership is patrilineal (meaning it passes from father to male child), he is relentlessly oblivious, and even cruel to Pai. In fact he goes so far as to test our patience mightily. Alternately raging at those around him and suffering from debilitating depression, our only hope is an ending that reveals the truth to all before it’s too late.
Whilst the story itself gets entirely mystical in its representations of what goes on (and why) later on, unambiguously so, we would not be able to care if the characterisations weren’t believable and heartfelt. All the actors behave and are portrayed in a naturalistic fashion, which helps ground the story even when it becomes somewhat allegorical / fantastical.
Keisha Castle Hughes is the main reason for this. Instead of playing the part as a precocious wise beyond her years brat prodigy, she plays it as a 12 year old girl, needing her grandfather’s love and acceptance, and continually having her heart broken. I defy anyone with a working heart to watch this film and not tear up in the poem recital scene. I DEFY you. She balances beautifully the kind of child-like unconditional love that pours out of her with the strength of her ancestors, the stone-like resolve to endure, to survive, to prove herself to her grandfather. Because she knows it, deep down, and the natural world sees it to. Those with eyes to see, see it clearly. Those that don’t, well, they flounder about like a sea creature that’s beached itself on the unforgiving sand.
The film is quite beautifully shot, which you’d assume wasn’t that hard, seeing as there seems to be no shortage of great scenery in New Zealand. But that natural beauty is integrated well into the film to tell the story. The soundtrack by Lisa Gerrard also helps, not being overly annoying or obtrusive, nor does it pre-empt each scene by telling us exactly how we’re supposed to feel at any given moment.
The film is not without its flaws. Quite substantial ones in fact. A young male character (Hemi) is introduced and abandoned just as quickly, with an aborted subplot about his criminal father. I suspect it was edited down due to time restraints. There’s a reason in the story why we don’t see him any longer, but the direction they appeared to be going disappears completely. It makes me wonder whether they should have bothered including as much as they did in the first place.
The film’s climax is… muddled. After a dramatically portentous event (one which perplexes me as to how it was done logistically, that being the beaching of the whales. Were they constructed? Did they take advantage of opportunity?), Paikea ends up doing something which proves conclusively whether she was born to lead her people, or whether she’s just a demented kid with delusions of grandeur. What occurs afterwards is confusing to me, completely. How the story then jumps to the happy ending doesn’t make any sense to me. I mean I liked how the film ends, but the manner in which it gets there is deliberately vague and a bit dissatisfying. It’s a minor issue in the scheme of things, I guess, but it bugged me all the same.
It’s not enough to diminish the pleasure I derived from watching this little gem. It’s a touching and beautiful story, well shot and well realised which doesn’t resort to too many stereotypes, nor does it lionise Maori culture to a patronising degree. It’s just a story about a girl and her grandfather, with little saccharine and no cloying afterburn as with your usually ‘family’ oriented fare. A keeper.
8 times you wonder how a late night ride on the back of a whale should end out of 10
"My name is Paikea Apirana, and I come from a long line of chiefs." - you sure do, sweetie, Whale Rider