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A Tribe for Pai

‘Whale Rider’ Follows a Girl’s Life in New Zealand

By Tao Yue

Staff wrter

Whale Rider

Written and directed by Niko Caro

Based on the novel by Witi Ihimaera

Rated PG-13

I come from a long line of chiefs,” says the young girl. From the time of her ancestor Paikea, who founded the tribe after riding to New Zealand on the back of a whale, the first-born son has always taken up his father’s mantle. But her birth breaks the line of succession, killing her mother and her twin brother in a difficult delivery. Her father, urged by her grandfather to take a new wife and try again for a son, defiantly names her Pai after the legendary ancestor, and runs off to Germany to become an artist.

The young Pai, played by Keisha Castle-Hughes in her first on-screen role, grows up to be a stubborn 11-year-old, sneaking peaks at the chieftain training being given to the boys of the tribe. Her tradition-bound grandfather Koro (Rawiri Paratene) is upset at this breach of protocol, constantly admonishing Pai that she is screwing up everything. But no obvious chieftain emerges from the male youngsters, while the community needs a leader more than ever.

An intriguing premise for a film billed by its posters as the story of a girl who “dared to confront the past, change the present, and determine the future.” It is easy to see why Whale Rider has already picked up half a dozen audience choice awards at international film festivals. The story flows naturally, depicting modern-day events but manages to keep the flavor of the legend in the background.

The acting, from faces mostly unknown to American audiences, is superb. Paratene, in particular, makes for an effective grandfather and tribal elder. He can be gentle with his granddaughter, bicycling her to school and chiding a child who has teased her. Yet he never allows us to forget that she is a tremendous disappointment to him merely by being born a girl. In public, when he speaks, nobody dares to question him. But in private, Pai’s grandmother Nanny Flowers (Vicky Haughton) is equally strong-willed, giving us a hint of the origins of Pai’s stubborness. Further contrasting to the grandfather are the other characters, who speak as colloquially as he does formally.

Going by the screenplay, it seems everyone in the village is against the grandfather: his son, his wife, his granddaughter, another of his sons who teaches Pai to fight with the traditional taiaha after she is banned from eavesdropping at classes. Granted, these disagreements are all evidenced nonconfrontationally, but somehow the grandfather’s leadership status is never in doubt. Chalk it up to good direction and acting, both restrained enough to keep us focused on the story and away from nitpicks such as this.

Likewise, the cinematography is restrained. This is the same New Zealand of Middle Earth fame in a little-known effects-heavy trilogy, but the beautiful rock formations and green grass are timed to be less saturated. The story is about Pai, after all, not the scenery.

But if all the elements work together so well, where’d the fourth star go? First, the film doesn’t really convey the community’s need for leadership, so Pai’s quest seems to lose some urgency. Pai is upset that the women of the community smoke, and one of the children’s fathers is shown to leave him alone for days at a time. However, the smoking comes across as a social event, not a vice, and the father clearly cares about his son, to the point of coming to listen to him perform a tribal chant and being proud of him afterwards. We accept the need for leadership, but it would’ve been more effective to see it.

In addition, the first reel is somewhat plodding, so slow on exposition and detached in its approach to conflict that one begins to regret having started to watch the movie. Of course, the rest of the film redeems itself admirably, and perhaps the pace helps us adjust to the sometimes gentle, sometimes strong New Zealand accent of all the characters. But combined with the lack of a serious threat to the community (even the school has a good teacher and seems well-run), the slow start to the film really imparts a leisurely and detached pace to the film.

Despite these faults, though, Whale Rider is a well-made, well-acted, well-photographed approach to the clash of modern values with traditional customs. Well worth seeing, and a good respite from the sequelmania that seems to afflict this summer even more than usual.