Film: Whale Rider
Directed by: Niki Caro
Where to Watch: Freevee
Why it Made the List:
Suggested to me for the 202o APAHM Project, Whale Rider was overlooked due to the fact that it was not an American film. During 2020, the drive behind this project was to emphasis the fact that AAPI are American, belong in America, and deserve to feel safe in their home. However, due to the yearly struggle to find a Pacific Islander American-centered movie, I decided that this year I would include Whale Rider so that we can better understand, appreciate, and respect the Maori customs and traditions that are presented in the movie.
This movie was written and directed by Niki Caro, who is a New Zealand director you may know from Mulan (2020), McFarland USA, and The Zookeeper's Wife. When Caro was announced as the director for Mulan, I remembered her name from Whale Rider and had to research if she was of Asian descent. Not really because I thought it was strange that a non-Asian would direct Mulan (which I did think), but because this would be her third film that centered around Asian stories. Caro actually gives an interview to justify why she directed Whale Rider, and I can definitely support some of her case.
Whale Rider is based on a Maori legend about a long line of chiefs who descended from Paikea, who rode on the back of a whale from Hawaiki. The current patriarch of the family, Koro, is very traditional. His oldest son's wife dies during childbirth, taking her son with her. However, the twin sister survives. Koro is unsympathetic towards his son's grief and encourages his son to produce another male heir in the future. His son informs Koro the name of his daughter is Paikea, which angers Koro. Paikea is rejected by Koro from the very start while her uncle and grandmother, Nanny, embrace her.
Years later, Paikea is seen riding on a bike with Koro, making us think he has come around and accepted her. While they do have a bond, it is not strong enough for Koro to forget his "old ways" traditions. Paikea's father has moved to Germany and comes to visit, revealing that he and Koro still have a very distant relationship. It's clear Koro's son will never ascend the position of chief and that Paikea is not an option due to her being a girl. Koro exclaims that he has no use for Paikea and so she decides to go to Germany with her father. However, the ocean (and the whales) call to her and she returns home.
Koro (in the brief time Paikea was gone) decided to start a sacred school that will teach all the first-born sons in the village about the Maori customs in hopes of finding a chief. At first, Paikea defies Koro by trying to sit in on a lesson, but eventually leaves and studies the lessons in secret. Her uncle teaches her in the way of the taiaha, which is typically reserved for males. It is through these lessons we learn more and more about the Maori customs.
Paikea proves again and again that she is the most worthy candidate to be chief through her knowledge and skill. Koro takes all the boys to retrieve his whale tooth (rei puta) from the ocean. All the boys fail and Koro turns to the ancestors for guidance but they do not answer his call. To help, Paikea asks for help too and she says they hear her. Later, Paikea retrieves the rei puta from the ocean and it is given to Nanny.
Paikea is hopeful that Koro will forgive her and invites him to her school performance. However, he does not arrive and misses her surprise: that she won the award for best speech and dedicates it to Koro. Paikea holds back tears as she gives her speech, disappointed that Koro never came. However, Koro was at the beach where multiple whales came on shore. The village tries all night to keep the whales hydrated and to eventually lead them to the water.
Paikea even tries to help but Koro yells for her to leave. He blames all that has happened on Paikea -- the failure to find a chief, the whales being beached, all of it. The village tries to use a rope and tractor to pull the whale back to the water. Earlier in the movie, Koro uses a rope and its multiple threads as a metaphor to describe the descendants of Paikea are all connected. The rope wrapped around the whale's fin breaks and the village fails to lead the whale to water. Because of the families inability to work together, the metaphorical rope is weakened. But because of Koro's inability to accept Paikea, the connection is severed.
It is Paikea that talks to the whale and climbs its back just as her namesake once did. She leads the pod of whales back into the ocean and is swept away by the sea. Upon this discovery, Nanny reveals that Paikea is the one who retrieved Koro's whale tooth. Shocked, Koro is devastated that he never saw what was right in front of him. Later, Paikea's body is found and taken to the hospital. Koro is by her side praying when Paikea opens her eyes.
The movie ends in celebration. The village, including Paikea's father, dance and sing as the now-completed war boat (waka) is carried to sea. Leading the rowers (which included women) in a chant is Paieka, who wears the rei puta around her neck and Koro smiling by her side. She declares that her people will move forward together.
This movie has so many themes -- acceptance from elders, acceptance of yourself, old versus new, defying gender-stereotypes and roles. Nanny makes a statement that while Koro is the boss at the school, she is the boss of the kitchen. She is fiercely matriarchal and it is clear that even though Koro is chief, she still has a big influence on Koro and his decisions. The movie teaches us a lot about the male Maori culture in a direct way (school lessons), but Paikea and Nanny teach us the female perspective as well. Paikea teaches us that the Maori culture is for all to appreciate and learn, whether you are male or female. They say that to know your history is to know yourself. I think Paikea is a great example of this expression. She knew she was fit to be chief and had a connection to the ancestors because she learned of all the traditions and culture from her family.
Caro claims she was fit to direct this movie because of the respect she had towards the Maori culture. She learned parts of the language, she had an advisor. She made sure she had the Maori people's approval every step of the way. Caro makes a good point that stories are universal and, in the case of Whale Rider, is more than a "Maori movie." The themes of this movie can be applied to many other groups. For example, in Chinese tradition, the oldest male son is the most favored. Queen Elizabeth I got a lot of push back for being a reigning queen with no husband and therefore no heir. While Caro directed these more universal themes well, I, as someone who is not of Maori background, cannot attest to how she directed the cultural aspects.
However, because I am not educated in the Maori customs, I do rely on movies such as Whale Rider or Moana to inform me. While I do not doubt the creators of these projects did their due diligence in researching, and in Caro's case, seeking approval from the source, it is important to remember that these movies cannot be the be-all, end-all for all Pacific Islander stories. This is why we really do need more stories that amplify Pacific Islander voices so that we can understand that, like any minority group, they are not a monolithic group.
I think Caro did an excellent job with this film and I applaud her for her commitment to make this movie as authentic as possible. Through her direction, Keisha Castle-Hughes (Paikea) earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress at the age of 13. Castle-Hughes performance makes you want to root for her and understand how important her village and her family mean to her.
The truth is, every year, I do find quite a few Pacific Islander movies that pique my interest but almost all of them are made in New Zealand with a NZ cast and crew. I am glad I decided to include Whale Rider because, while I think it is important to celebrate American and/or immigrant stories, it is more important to amplify authentic voices regardless of nationality. Education is a cure for ignorance. The more we understand each other, the better we can respect each other.
Small Business Shout Out!
This past February I got to visit Maui for the first time. It was such a beautiful and relaxing island that was very in touch with nature and its land. My sister wanted to try an açaí bowl food truck and it was the cutest little truck I had seen! It was so colorful and happy, donning minimalist drawings of fruits. The artist who painted this truck goes by Punky Aloha Studio! Shar Tui'asoa is a Pasifika illustrator, muralist, and author who grew up in Hawaii. She resides in Oahu and opened Punky Aloha Studio in 2018. You have probably seen her work in places like The New York Times, Sephora, Facebook, and Apple! If you like minimalist or vector-based illustrations definitely give her a follow and check out her work!
If You Liked This, You Might Like:
Mulan (1998) on Disney +
Moana on Disney +