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  • Writer's pictureJohn Lim

MF 342 : Summer movie series: Whale Rider (2002)

Updated: Jun 16, 2022

This week, I cover an indie film that may have flown under your radar, which you should add to your must watch list: Whale Rider (2002). More at

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Note: the summer movie series will air on Fridays.

Summer perfection

Whale Rider (2002) is one of those movies that falls under the category of famous but unheard of. It's an enigma. Had it not been for a prior career that kept me on the road a lot, I probably would have never seen it. Back in those days, NPR was my go to for all things ... considered and not. I particularly enjoyed listening to segments that covered arts and entertainment, in which I would discover hidden gems that would otherwise float right under my often pedestrian mainstream radar.

After listening to a glowing review, I went to see it at the Landmark's Bethesda Row Cinema (may you come back soon) on a date. While the date is long since gone from my memory, the movie has had 19 years of staying power. I went in not knowing what to expect, even after listening to the review. The movie in many ways defies description though I'll do my best.

Today, we look for plot and a compelling story to anchor the movies we watch, the shows we stream, and the books we listen to or read. This movie has one, a good one at that but I would argue it is secondary to what gives it its resonance and rewatchability.

On one level, this is a movie about a Paikea or "Pai" (Keisha Castle-Hughes), a young girl who is part of the Maori tribe in New Zealand. She is searching for her identity and place amongst her people. She was born a twin. Her brother was expected to take his place as a chosen one; a leader who would one day lead the Maori people from an age of darkness into a new era of promise. That was the grand expectation of Koro (Rawiri Paratene), their grandfather. Sadly, both her brother and their mother die in the opening of the movie at the hospital following childbirth. This leaves everyone, including their father, Pourangi (played by a highly underrated Cliff Curtis), heartbroken. Pourangi is so devastated that when his own father tells him that he can start again, he rebels and leaves New Zealand, leaving Koro and his wife, Nanny Flowers (Vicki Haughton), to raise their granddaughter alone.

As Pai grows, Koro is filled with conflict. After losing his grandson, and becoming estranged from his son, he scours the island, looking for the chosen one, assuming it to be a male. Meanwhile, Pai wants nothing more than her grandfather's acceptance and to be taken seriously as a member of the Maori people.

As intriguing as the story is, what makes this movie worth watching, embracing, and rewatching are the aspects outside of the plot.

Like the movies I've talked about thus far, Whale Rider takes its time. Even more than the prior two films, this is a film that isn't afraid to revel in the small, slice of life moments and allow us to really get to know its characters, warts and all. Despite its grandiose story, the film at its core is a series of smaller intimate moments replete with love and conflict, within and amongst its characters. Take for instance, a scene on the beach between Pourangi and Pai, around 20 minutes in. Pourangi has returned to New Zealand for a visit after spending years in Germany as an artist. The reunion with his parents is strained, awkward, and filled with unsettled questions and unresolved issues. In any other movie, the emphasis would be on the tensions and resentments between father and estranged daughter. Instead, we see two characters bonded by a lifelong desire for acceptance and understanding from Koro. It's a beautiful scene that plays like an aria inside a long sweeping opera.

The family dynamics; a complex interplay of hope, tension, and love, permeate this movie and serve as our lens to the tribe itself. Koro's devotion to tradition and his laser-focused desire to find a male successor, blinds him to the greatness of Pai that is obvious to everyone else in the family.

Movies that are simply a compilation of events often fail to connect, revealing weaknesses in coherency or a lackluster story. Here, it is a strength, enriched by the performances of the outstanding cast. We are treated to moments between Pai and her father, her grandparents, and her uncle, all of whom are pages within a rich family album. The plot is a garnish to the film's characters, their relationships, and tribal beliefs that make up the centerpiece. Equally, the film's breathtaking cinematography, capturing the scenic landscapes of New Zealand, and its haunting soundtrack elevate it to a work of art.

The final act of the film involves whales who literally crash onto the scene. What happens next is a rare feat in cinema. The ending simultaneously reveals and shrouds in mystery without feeling cheap or gimmicky. It's not clear whether the ending is meant to be taken literally or as a dream or a spiritual afterlife. It's left to you to interpret but unlike many films that attempt this and fail, you won‘t be disappointed by the ambiguity. Rather, you will be uplifted by what you've just experienced over the past hour and 45 minutes.

Whale Rider is a sensory delight and one of the best movies you will see today, tomorrow, and for years to come.

The good:

  • Outstanding cast and performances, especially from Keisha Castle-Hughes, Rawiri Paratean, and Cliff Curtis.

  • Gorgeous cinematography capturing the beauty of the New Zealand landscape.

  • Haunting, ethereal score by Lisa Gerrard.

  • Emphasis on relationships, familial and tribal. This is a movie that poignantly captures the slices of life moments between its characters.

The bad:

  • None.


  • ***** (out of five)

Where you can watch Whale Rider (2002)

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