New Zealand (NZ/UK/Ger) 2002 : Niki CARO : 101 mins
Whale Rider has harvested audience awards at major film festivals all over the world, and it’s easy to see why – this is an entertaining, uplifting parable with mild touches of exotica, mysticism and social conscience. But it’s also a very old-fashioned kind of crowd-pleaser, and one whose surface pleasures can’t obscure the troubling problems at its core.
In a coastal Maori community, a prophecy tells of a future chief whose miraculous whale-riding will signal the end of his people’s economic and cultural ‘dark age.’ Current chief Koro (Paratene) despairs when his grandson – who would have eventually taken over as leader – is still-born, though twin sister Paikea (Castle-Hughes) survives. As Koro trains the local boys in warrior arts, Paikea looks on in frustration, certain of her own magical destiny.
In the gutsy-teen-overcomes-gender-barriers tradition of Billy Elliot‘s Jamie Bell and Bend It Like Beckham‘s Parminder Nagra, Castle-Hughes is a real find – at once convincingly indomitable and achingly vulnerable. It’s a shame, then, that she’s saddled with Caro’s bland direction and troubling script: in the 21st century, how strange it is to see such an unquestioning celebration of the hereditary principle – like Harry Potter and Anakin and Luke Skywalker, Paikea’s genetic inheritance is what makes her ‘special’.
And it’s nave at best, dangerous at worst, to suggest that the very real problems of communities like Paikea’s can only be solved by the arrival of a messiah figure. Even worse, how depressing that a film which supposedly celebrates Maori culture should adhere so closely to the storytelling conventions of American ‘inspirational’ movies
9th July, 2003
(seen 5th June: Showcase, Dudley)
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by Neil Young