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"Encapsulates the grace and beauty of international cinema."
"Castle-Hughes performance is simply flawless, full of depth."
"An enchanting tale of a young girl who dares to dream."
Whale Rider  


Pai: Keisha Castle-Hughes
Koro: Rawiri Paratene
Nanny Flowers: Vicky Haughton
Porourangi: Cliff Curtis
Rawiri: Grant Roa
Hemi: Mana Taumaunu
Shilo: Rachel House
Review June 2003

"Whale Rider" encapsulates the grace and beauty of international cinema. It's uplifting, dramatic, and bursting with unwavering spirit. Based on the novel by Witi Ihimaera and brought to life by director/writer Niki Caro, "Whale Rider" is a compassionate coming-of-age film about a 12-year-old girl who must overcome prejudice and disdain to find love and acceptance. Filled with cross-cultural themes, it takes us into the world of ancient Maori traditions while handling more modern issues such as a woman's role in society and gender or racial stereotyping. Winner of the World Cinema Award at Toronto and Sundance Film Festivals, "Whale Rider" is unquestionably the most impressive film of the year.

In a small coastal village off the shores of New Zealand live the Whangara people, a Maori tribe with a heritage spanning 1000 years. Of most significance, they are the direct descendants of Paikea, a New Zealand ancestor who arrived on the east coast on the back of a whale when his canoe was overturned at sea. Paikea came to be known as the Whale Rider and his legend was passed on from generation to generation. In the spirit and ancient traditions of Paikea, a male heir born to the Chief of Whangara would instantaneously become his successor.

The current Chief of Whangara is Koro, a stern and traditional man with two sons. At a nearby hospital, his eldest son, Porourangi, fathers twins - a boy and a girl. But complications arise taking the life of the mother and son, leaving Porourangi all alone with a daughter. Surprisingly, the Koro is displeased with what has transpired and stubbornly refuses to acknowledge his granddaughter, only contemplating the future of his people without an heir. Overwhelmed with grief and loss, Porourangi incurs the wrath of his father even further by naming his daughter after Paikea and subsequently, leaving the girl with his mother and father to raise.

Koro initially rejects Pai, masked in prejudice and purpose. But the girl's grandmother, Nanny Flowers, sees the girl as a child in desperate need of love and nurturing. Over time, Koro begins to accept Pai; however, he still refuses to believe that she is the natural heir. Instead, he believes her birth was the beginning of hardships for his people. In search of a male leader, he calls for his people to bring forth their 12-year-old boys to train them in Tikanga - the ways and customs of the Maori people. Koro assumes that such teachings in ancient chants, rituals, and fighting will eventually reveal the natural leader to him.

In the meantime, Pai continues to strive for Koro's affection while also trying to find her place in Whangara. She solicits the help of her uncle in the arts of chiefdom, a former champion warrior himself, and learns about her people's history and song on her own, unbeknownst to Koro. But on a final test of Tikanga, all of the boys fail, leaving Koro in complete disarray and without hope. Then, when things couldn't possibly get any worse, a herd of whales is mysteriously drawn to the shore. Despite all the energy and prayers of the people, it would appear that the end of the Whangara people was near. How did the whales get ashore? Can they be saved? And will Whangara find a new leader?

"Whale Rider" is an extraordinary piece of filmmaking. For starters, it captures universal themes that are genuine: a community faced with an ancestral problem of succession, traditional roots of prejudice versus modern views of individualism, and amidst all of that, a young girl in search for love and approval in a male dominated society. Down-to-earth and yet so innovative, the film does not fall for the standard clich?s or plot traps of modern cinema. When confronted with a familiar plot element, it takes the path of the realist, however difficult. For instance, Porourangi does not show up to accept his destiny, Koro fails to attend Pai's award winning speech in his honor, and whales washed ashore cannot all be saved. These details normally would have a Hollywood spin on them with "they all lived happily ever after." But this film dares to be different. It is effortlessly curious and achieves unpredictability.

The film is also a landmark achievement in New Zealand cinema, having been fully produced and funded by the New Zealand Film Production Fund. It is one of the most expensive New Zealand film's to date, yet one whose success will carry on for many years. Shot directly in Whangara, the film maintains its roots and connection to Ihimaera's novel. According to director Niko Caro, you truly get a sense for how it's described in the book with "the sweeps of the bay, the island that looks like a whale, the meeting houses?the people whose legend we were telling." Such realism, like the 60-foot waka (canoe) that was hand made, was extremely important to the storytelling and the scenery is breathtaking.

The youngest winner to ever receive an Academy Award was Tatum O'Neal for "Paper Moon." O'Neal was 10 at the time (1973). Most recently, however, 11-year-old Anna Paquin won for "The Piano" in 1994. And if the Academy doesn't forget this performance, there's no reason why Keisha Castle-Hughes shouldn't be up there at next year's ceremony. [Note: Casting director Diana Rowan also cast Paquin in "The Piano"]. Castle-Hughes performance is simply flawless, full of depth - beauty, sincerity, and innocence. She will touch your heart in every scene. Also phenomenal is Rawiri Paratene as Koro, the overbearing Chief. Paratene portrays the grandfather with such pride and honesty that his intentions, good and bad, are easily noticeable.

Much like "The Fast Runner" from last year, "Whale Rider" transcends modern movie storytelling with realism, heart, and imagination. It's no fable or fairy tale. It's real life in the traditions of Maori culture. And in real life, things don't always work out the way you think they will, but surprisingly and unexplainably, remarkable things can happen. "Whale Rider" captures this beautifully and poignantly. It's an enchanting tale of a young girl who dares to dream. No matter how hopeless, no matter how far, to reach the unreachable star.

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