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On the east coast of New Zealand, the Whangara people believe their presence there dates back a thousand years or more to a single ancestor, Paikea, who escaped death when his canoe capsized by riding to shore on the back of a whale. From then on, Whangara chiefs, always the first-born, always male, have been considered Paikea's direct descendants. Pai, an 11-year-old girl in a patriarchal New Zealand tribe, believes she is destined to be the new chief. But her grandfather Koro is bound by tradition to pick a male leader. Pai loves Koro more than anyone in the world, but she must fight him and a thousand years of tradition to fulfill her destiny. Written by
Koro teaches the boys a form of the Maori "haka" genre of traditional dance. Various haka are performed for many different occasions, and are practiced by all genders and age groups. The most widely known haka is "Ka Mate," performed by New Zealand's world famous All Blacks national rugby team before their test (international) matches as a challenge to their opponents. See more »
When the girl has been crying and the grandfather is comforting her, he wipes the tears from her face. In some shots, you can see where he wiped the tear, in other shots, you see a tear that has tricked down to her chin, and in some shots, she has a tear that hasn't traveled so far. See more »
In the old days, the land felt a great emptiness. It was waiting. Waiting to be filled up. Waiting for someone to love it. Waiting for a leader.
[child birth scene]
And he came on the back of a whale. A man to lead a new people. Our ancestor, Paikea. But now we were waiting for the firstborn of the new generation, for the descendant of the whale rider. For the boy who would be chief.
There was no gladness when I was born. My twin brother died, and took our mother with him.
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While 1994's "Once Were Warriors" was a violent look at Maori culture this is easily more upbeat and lyrical. Story starts out in a hospital where a mother has just given birth to twins and the male twin dies as does the mother. The remaining twin is a girl and the film is about her and how she thinks and wants to be the future leader of her village. The film is set in modern day and we see the girl Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes) as a 12 year old who knows that her twin brother that died was suppose to be the future chief. Pai's father is Porourangi (Cliff Curtis) and he's an artist who has left the village for a career and Pai is raised by her grandparents Koro and Nanny (Rawiri Paratene and Vicky Haughton) and she craves the respect from Koro but he is of the old ways and is still searching for a new chief. She wants to learn the ways of being chief but Koro yells at her not to fool with the sacred ways of their people. Women are treated as second class but Pai eavesdrops on Koro's classes with the young boys and learns the ways. The film is directed by Niki Caro and its only her third film but this should definitely put her on everyones list as a great future director. The film is beautiful to look at and even though its not a big budget movie the story and images make this an unforgettable viewing experience. Caro does a wonderful job of allowing the story to tell itself without relying on plot contrivances. Even though the story is more of a fable it still comes across as relevant and believable. One scene in particular stands out and its the one where Pai is receiving an award at school and she has invited Koro to watch her but instead of him making the obligatory entrance, Koro has discovered something more important. The performances are superb and Castle-Hughes gives I think one of the best performances of the year. What makes it so amazing is that its her film debut! You would think that you were watching a seasoned actress but your not! She's incredible to look at and in some scenes she comes across as so strong willed but then in other shots she's just a fun loving young girl. Castle-Hughes conveys both sorrow and pity as she dreams of being a chief. A remarkable performance that was crucial to the film. Without her performance the film would come across as more distant emotionally. The images of Castle-Hughes on the back of the whale as it submerges are so haunting and beautiful and its these scenes that give it a lyrical quality and the emotional impact of the story is impossible to ignore. This is more than just a film its a viewing experience that everyone must see! Beautiful, haunting and a performance that you will never forget. Go see it!
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