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Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2003

Maoris surface in style

Whale Rider

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Niki Caro
Running time: 102 minutes
Language: English
Opens Sept. 13
[See Japan Times movie listings]

New Zealand films are rare enough on Tokyo screens, but New Zealand Maori films? Those are about as common as honest LDP politicians. You'd have to go back to 1994 and Lee Tamahori's "Once Were Warriors" to find one. Although that film became an international hit, Tamahori went Hollywood -- his most recent journeyman work was at the helm of "Die Another Day" -- and that seemed to be the end of it, aside from a lingering fondness among certain action stars for Maori tattoos . . .

News photo
Keisha Castle-Hughes in "Whale Rider"

But along comes Niki Caro, an accomplished Maori director whose latest work, "Whale Rider," has managed to go global. Where Tamahori's film focused on the urban hell of Maori existence -- alcoholism, domestic violence, gangs and poverty -- Caro turns her eye to a quieter, more remote corner of New Zealand, the small coastal community of Wharanga, north of Gisborne. There she finds a community adrift, its direction unclear and its traditions at risk. It's a less explosive scenario than the one Tamahori brought to the screen, but the tensions between tradition and modernity are just as real. Similarly, Caro's tight and well-acted story, though more understated, is just as moving.

There are some films that are only as good as their casting, and "Whale Rider" is one of them. Its story, based on the novel of the same name by Witi Ihimaera, is a slightly didactic attempt to preach flexibility in the face of change and female empowerment. While it's a decent enough tale, it truly comes alive in the relationship between Paikea, played by then 11-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes, and her strict grandfather, Koro, played by veteran actor Rawiri Paratene. Though the generation-gap conflict that drives the story may seem familiar, the intensity which Paratene and first-timer Castle-Hughes bring to it will keep you engrossed.

The village of Wharanga traces its lineage from the mythical figure of Paikea, a great leader who long ago came to the community in spectacular fashion on the back of the whale. The present-day chief is Koro, but as he gets on in years, he fears for the future of his people. Koro's son, Porourangi (Cliff Curtis, the sleazy "Uncle Buli" from "Once Were Warriors"), has largely abdicated his responsibility, leaving behind Wharanga and his young daughter Paikea to pursue his own career as an artist in Europe.

There's a reason for that: One is the general economic and social malaise that the film hints at, the loss of hope and possibility that lingers over such isolated Maori settlements. But looming larger than that is Koro, a bad-tempered disciplinarian who's heaped too much guilt and responsibility onto his son. Koro was expecting Porourangi to father the great leader of the next generation, the next "Paikea." When Porourangi's wife died during childbirth, along with the male twin she was carrying, Koro only showed regret for the lost boy. To spite him, Porourangi named the surviving baby girl Paikea, even though only a male can assume such a position of leadership.

Cut ahead 10 years, and Koro and Paikea have formed a close, albeit stormy, bond during Porourangi's absence. Paikea's quite the tomboy, eager to prove she can be the leader her granddad is seeking, while he's just as stubborn that tradition cannot be broken. The dynamic between them feels so right, so natural, that it grounds the story solidly in believable emotions. So when it moves into a more mythical dimension -- when Paikea misguidedly summons the spirits of her ancestors for help and a school of whales beach themselves at Wharanga -- we buy it, and stick with the story as the town rallies to try and rescue the dying whales.

The mythic feel is augmented by a haunting, aquatic soundtrack by Dead Can Dance singer Lisa Gerrard (also heard in "Gladiator"), and the panoramic beauty of the New Zealand coast, evocatively shot by cinematographer Leon Narbey.

It's easy to romanticize the animist myths of tribal peoples, especially for modern art-house audiences who have no time or place for organized religion. The body of Christ? No thanks. Telepathic communication with whales? Aaawww . . . But to her credit, Caro presents myth both as a connection with a deeper, mystical understanding of the world as well as a pragmatic parable, a code for living that transcends generations, providing stability and continuity, a metaphor for understanding our lives.

When little Paikea ascends a beached whale to guide it back to the sea, she literally embraces metaphor in reality, becoming the "Whale Rider" of legend. It's a powerful moment, and one that embraces possibility and belief as memorably as the climax to Jane Campion's "The Piano." Here's hoping Caro resists the inevitable call from Hollywood.

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