Whale Rider

According to legend, the Maoris came to Aotearoa (present-day New Zealand) from a distant place led by Paikea, a chief who rode on the back of a whale. Whale Rider, based on the novel by Witi Ihimaera, contemporaneanizes the legend. Koro (played by Rawiri Paratene) claims to be a descendant of the original Maori chief, having passed various tests in his youth under the tutelage of his father. Koro’s son Porourangi (played by Cliff Curtis), however, has failed the tests, so Koro hopes that a grandson will carry on the tradition. When the film begins, Porourangi’s spouse dies while giving birth to twins–a son, who is stillborn, and a daughter, Pai. In search of his own identity, Porourangi then goes to Europe, where he enjoys success in an artistic career, and he eventually marries a German wife. Koro, nevertheless, perseveres in trying to find a new chief from among the boys of his Maori village, where he perceives that the strong Maori spirit is dying under the weight of effete Western culture, a theme sadly explored in Once Were Warriors (1994). (The final title of the film is a dedication “To Those Who Came Before.”) Twelve-year-old Pai (played by Keisha Castle-Hughes), nevertheless, tries to join Koro’s leadership training sessions, but is rebuffed because she is a girl. One day, as a final test for the boys, Koro takes them away from shore on a boat. He throws overboard the tooth of a whale that he has been carrying around his neck as a sign of his status as chief, and he asks the boys to retrieve the tooth from the depths. None passes the test, however. Accordingly, Koro returns home, so disappointed that he goes to bed and refuses to get up. Soon, some of Koro’s relatives go out on a boat to fish; when they reach the place where the tooth was thrown overboard, Pai suddenly jumps into the water and in a minute or two emerges with the treasured object. She has passed the test and has the right to wear the tooth as the new chief. But there is one more test, albeit unexpected. One night, several whales end up stranded on the beach of the village. The next day, efforts of the villagers to pull the largest whale into the water prove to be in vain. Soon, Pai strides up to the whale, says something in Maori, climbs to the top of the whale, and then rides as the whale returns to the water. As the film’s tagline says, “One young girl dared to confront the past, change the present and determine the future.” Directed by Niki Caro, Whale Rider not only shows the resilience of Maori culture, including some of the native customs and dances, and also the flexibility of that culture in accepting a female on an equal basis with males. MH

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