the global influence of moviemaking collides with the old tradition of storytelling in whale rider, an adaptation of witi ihimaera’s new zealand novel based on one of the stories the maori have told for a thousand years.
koro, the leader of the paikea tribe, awaits the arrival of his successor; a male heir, fathered by his eldest son porourangi, to follow in his footsteps. the happy news of twins arriving is muted quickly as porourangi’s wife and the boy twin die, leaving the other twin, the girl pai, as the possible heir. the grief-stricken father flees, placing pai in the custody of koro and his wife (her grandmother). pai battles to win the favour and love of koro, who blames pai for the tribe’s continued downturn and searches for a new inheritor. as pai struggles to find herself, she finds nature and heritage collide…
the story told is an old one; a neglected offspring battles to be recognized and loved by her family with help from the outside. however, whale rider does this admirably, placing an emphasis on the letting the tale unfold naturally, without relying on schmaltz and obvious plot devices. the new zealand landscape is both gritty and beautiful as it’s obvious that the coastal tribe is remote and financially rough. niki caro directs the film in a straightforward fashion, guided along by the ethereal score by lisa gerrard. the entire cast and crew do an excellent job, particularly keisha castle-huges as the precocious pai and rawiri paratene as the stubborn koro.
the book is used in new zealand high schools as part of their reading courses, but for those of us outside the kiwiland, the movie serves as a brilliant introduction to the world of the maori, highlighting their language, traditions and beliefs. however, don’t expect this to be an english class filmstrip; whale rider succeeds on drawing us into a world by looking at one person’s story for identity as she’s carried through life on the knowledge of her ancestors.