Whale Rider: Progressive battle lines

[Screenshot]Whale Rider is as charming as it is predictable. The basic story outline is that a young girl is the successor to a long line of chiefs; tradition dictates that Maori chiefs are male. From here, the progress of the story is pretty much foreseeable, although the details are occasionally surprising. Nonetheless, it’s an enjoyable story, occasionally amusing, rarely deeply affecting. One note it hits very well is in the interplay between tradition and modernity. The incursion of the modern world into a traditional lifestyle is clearly thematic: Hemi’s father rejects the old ways in favor of imported culture; Porourangi keeps his culture in mind but nonetheless goes abroad and marries a foreign woman. The fading of a traditional culture also works in Koro’s need to explain traditional acts to the prospective chiefs (it’s easy for me, an American, to find Koro ferociously sticking out his tongue ridiculous; but likewise is it ridiculous to his charges, who were raised on global-import culture. Somehow, the acknowledgment of this dichotomy makes it seem less as if the film is itself mocking Maori culture). It makes the central conflict ring truer to have these developments around the edges, since ultimately the issue ends up being cultural purity, which is an issue everywhere traditionalists encounter a global culture. So, big thematic elements, leading to a lot of conflict, but in the end the resolution’s a bit pat—would that the gap between tradition and progress was so easily bridged in real life.

On non-thematic details: Keisha Castle-Hughes is delightful, believable and talented, which is good, since she’s the character called upon for the most range (surprisingly, she’s done almost nothing since, but then again, she’s a trifle young to be a full-time actor). The camerawork is unambitious except for underwa ter scenes which might have, honestly, been better left out. The music is highly appropriate, blending some modern sounds with a number of traditional chants (disclaimer: I don’t know Maori traditions, so I might be off base in my assessment of their authenicity. But they cast Maoris, and I’m presuming they got them pretty close to right.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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