May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
July 19, 2003
(Ed. Note: This was originally published at The Matthew’s House Project.)
Whale Rider is packed with all the clichés we would expect to find in a film about a village on the fringe of the world, both geographically and culturally. It has the brow-furrowed and taciturn Maori grandfather, the wise and winking grandmother who really wears the pants in the house, the son chosen by his father and the son who wasn’t, and you can guess the rest. The story proceeds directly along the lines of a familiar formula. Little Pai’s father returns briefly, a stranger from a new world who comes back to his ancient hometown world weary and sophisticated. The rest of the film chronicles the attempt by Pai’s grandfather to inscribe the youth of his tribe with the ancient warrior ethos of his ancestors. And in between are the moments of conversation between Pai and her grandmother, the intimate the passing on of a lifetime of Maori living.
But in and around this predictable storyline, Caro layers brilliant sweeps of natural cinematography and focused reflections on Pai and her predicament. It is a bit like a children’s book populated completely by adults and adult themes, the mythological whimsy towards which the film eventually turns becoming profound and spiritual in the context of her uncanny storytelling. The drama of her natural imagery begins to point to something beyond itself, precisely in the same way that the myths and artwork of her community looked to nature for their symbology.
And these natural connections made by Caro between this story and its setting are where the film becomes successful. It retells the mythological heritage of this dwindling culture through the eyes of a little girl who, according to her culture, plays a very specific domestic role that has little to do with the stories they have told for centuries. What emerges is a feminism that actually works, found latent in these old tales. It is not a Thelma and Louise feminism that has Pai staring down a patriarchal narrative in acts of self-destructive defiance. Rather, here it unfolds in the actual enacting of a myth, which in Torah, Enuma Elish, and most other classic works of mythos is typically linked to a male figure. And here Pai emerges from the sea, creative, redemptive, etc… At the end of the film is an incredible explosion of story, a vivid apology for the preservation of the kind of storytelling and mythmaking that Pai has just become a part of.