And the first Oscar nomination for 2003 goes to...
Whale Rider is the other big movie to come out of New Zealand this year. Unlike Return of the King, it tells a story steeped in New Zealand Maori tradition and with a lot to say about current Maori society. It's a tough film, and it's an uplifting film. It's quite funny and it's flawless. It's well worth your time and money.
The story is set in an impoverished coastal village in New Zealand. The Maoris are poor, but claim a lineage stretching back a thousand years to Paikea, a great spiritual leader who rode to land on the back of a whale, thus earning him and his successors the name, Whale Rider. The Chief of this village is a hereditary title; the first born son of each generation automatically inherits. This is something that the current Chief clings to, even as most around him, especially the children, don't particularly care.
The movie starts with the birth of what is hoped to be the Chief's grandson and future heir. Tragedy strikes, and the difficult childbirth costs the life of the Chief's daughter-in-law and newborn son. The twin daughter survives, but in the eyes of her grandfather, she's useless, because she's not a boy. The son, Porourangi, in defiance of his father's wishes, names her Pai, in honour of her lineage.
Flash forward twelve years later, and we see that the Chief has come around, somewhat. He genuinely loves his granddaughter and they laugh as he gives her rides to school on his rusty bicycle. However, the son, who has left the village in grief, returns and tells of his promising art career in Europe. He resists the attempts of his father to get him to stay in the village and marry one of the available women. Things come to a head and Porourangi drops a number of bombshells: he has a European girlfriend, and she's pregnant. She has no interest in living in New Zealand. The son is leaving the village behind.
This promotes a crisis. The grandfather, who sees the son breaking the thousand-year spiritual line to the Whale Rider, decides to call all the first-born sons of the village and teach them in the ways of their ancestors, looking for a future chief among them. Young Pai wants to participate, but she's disqualified on account of being female. Her attempts to learn escalates his attempts to stop her, and things quickly reach a breaking point.
At its root, Whale Rider is about a young girl's struggle against the odds, but there is more. This movie is also about the ways we disappoint our fathers (or, in this case, our grandfathers) and the way our grandfathers sometimes disappoint us. It's a movie about the good and bad aspects of tradition. It's a tough film to watch in places, as the Chief, despite his early scenes laughing with Pai, reacts to the unravelling of his spiritual tradition with tremendous anger and barely contained violence. The villagers live in the quiet desperation of poverty, with some of the laughs having sad edges to them, as we saw in The Full Monty, but this makes the ending all the more uplifting.
One of the best scenes in the movie comes after the Chief refuses to teach Pai in the art of Taiaha (a fighting stick), the grandmother suggests that she go to her loafing uncle, who was once a Taiaha champion. She goes to his house and finds him lounging on a mattress with his girlfriend, a bunch of friends with nothing to do, and a lot of beer bottles. There also appears to be a drug ampoule which the uncle snatches out of sight before Pai can see it. Then Pai asks her uncle to give her a demonstration of Taiaha, and he does. Although overweight and much older, he undergoes an impressive transformation, putting on a powerful display and looking very proud over what he's still capable of. The village's transformation begins, in small ways, soon thereafter.
This movie is especially difficult to watch at times because while Pai is surrounded by love (she has the tacit support of her grandmother and her uncle, as well as some of the children selected to be substitute heirs to the Chief), only Pai really stands up to her Grandfather. The sense that she is alone, in the face of a mountain of a man, is going to be disturbing for some viewers. Fortunately, the movie has a moving and uplifting (if nailbiting) ending. Pai's elevation is not just a victory over her grandfather, it's a victory for her people. By standing up against the strongest symbol of her ancestry, Pai not only strikes a blow for young women everywhere, she reconnects her people with their heritage.
Whale Rider is flawless; the script is basically formulaic, but it has some surprises and handles emotions and characterization with a lot of flare. It has excellent visuals, wonderful sounds (the Maori chants are a highlight, as Pai, her grandfather and her grandmother have excellent voices), strong characterization and wonderful acting. Of special highlight is 11-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes, who is simply enchanting (she is especially expressive with her eyes), carries the movie, and never casts a false note. The other actors, especially the grandfather and his son, aren't far behind.
I honestly believe that Whale Rider will be a candidate for a number of Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Foreign Picture and possibly Best Actress. It is certainly a good bet for Best Foreign Picture. It has that combination of the uplifting moments, the arthouse feel, and the fact that the movie comes from somewhere other than Hollywood that held The Full Monty and Life is Beautiful in good stead.
But even if this movie wasn't destined for the Oscars, you should see it. I was happy to see this film in the independent Princess Cinema, paying $9 for the privilege. I'd be just as happy paying $13.50 at Silver City. It's worth everyone's temporal and emotional investment.