Whale Rider (2002)

Posted by on Jan 2, 2012 in No Boys Allowed | 0 comments

Whale1

Disclaimer: Some ripe language, but nothing to worry about.

I can say, without a doubt, that Whale Rider is the best feminist film since The Piano and is one of the best, if not the best, movie of 2003. But the mere mention of feminism turns many potential viewers away as they envision bra-burning, man-hating lesbians parading about and pushing their political agendas.

But after winning audience awards at Sundance and Toronto film festivals and an Oscar nomination for Keisha Castle-Hughes, those audiences that actually gave it a chance clearly embraced this incredible film about ambition, destiny, identity, and deteriorating traditions.

The film follows an age-old legend Whale2of Paikea, the ancestor of the Whangara people who cheated death and arrived in New Zealand on the back of a whale. Several generations later, the Whangara people await the resurgence of the great leader via the first-born male, who the people appoint as chief. Koro (Rawiri Paratene) is the current chief, and his son Porourangi (Cliff Curtis) is expecting twins (including the first-born male). Expectations are squandered, however, when the birth ends the life of the boy and mother. When Porourangi was the first-born male, he turned down the role of chief and, to lash back at his father, he named his newborn daughter Paikea (Castle-Hughes).

From the moment she is born, Paikea desperately tries to prove her destiny as chief to her disbelieving and scornful grandfather. But as he sees his own life waning, Koro organizes a school to test the 12-year-old boys in the village and see who is destined to be chief. Meanwhile, Paikea is driven to challenge the generations of tradition in this male-dominated village to become chief herself.

Castle-Hughes resets the bar for Whale3child acting by giving an unparalleled performance and making this film a must-see. Her poise and presence on the screen is mind-boggling in this demanding role. In one of the most moving scenes in recent cinema history, Castle-Hughes delivers a touching and award-winning school speech in honor of her grandfather, who does not show up to hear it. Studios have since typecast Castle-Hughes for sexier Lindsay Lohan-esque roles, which she has consequently turned down. To date, this talented performer has appeared in a handful of roles, none of which have utilized her as they should.

Writer/director Niki Caro, who was also behind the feminist film North Country and the disappointing Vintner’s Luck (also with Castle-Hughes), proved her talent with Whale Rider and joined an elite yet short list of female auteurs in Hollywood’s male-dominated industry. I’m hoping her success inspires a new wave of female directors, but I’ve yet to see evidence of it.

Among other things, this unique film demands viewers to analyze their own culture in terms of gender relations (not an easy task). It’s easy to dismiss this Maori village as outdated or savage, which I’m sure some viewers will, but how much does it truly differ from our own? Prompting this question, I suspect, is one of the reasons for making it in the first place.

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