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Whale Rider (PG)



Review by: Graeme Kay | Rating: Two

DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Audio commentary by director Niki Caro; Behind the scenes featurette (approx 27 mins); Tribal featurette (approx 11 mins); Eight deleted scenes with commentary; Cast screen tests; Trailers; Photo gallery.

A POWERFUL tale about the struggles of a young Maori girl trying to overcome the prejudices of her grandfather and the strictures of tradition.

The Maori inhabitants of a small coastal village, in New Zealand, claim descent from Paikea, the Whale Rider - a legendary figure who is believed to have led his people to New Zealand on the back of a whale.

The Maori believe that every 1,000 years, a male heir, born to the chief, takes on Paikea's mantle as the leader of the tribe.

But things turn sour when Pourangi, the son of the current chief, Koro, refuses to accept that role. It is therefore left to his first-born son to become the leader.

Unfortunately, Pourangi's son dies in childbirth, along with his mother, leaving his twin sister, Pai, as Pourangi's only child.

Koro, believing that a girl cannot become the Whale Rider, rejects Pai and comes to believe that the decline in the fortunes of his village and its people can be traced directly to her birth.

The story follows Pai's attempts to convince her stern, custom-bound grandfather, whom she loves dearly, despite his hostility towards her, that she can be a leader to her people.

Using the book, The Whale Rider, by Witi Ihimaera, as her template, director, Niki Caro, crafts a warm, touching, achingly human film.

Exquisitely shot to capture the fierce beauty of the east coast of New Zealand, and the richness of Maori culture, Whale Rider presents a convincing portrait of a proud people striving to hang on to their beliefs while dealing with the social problems - lack of work, drug and alcohol abuse, loss of identity - that are common to many 21st Century communities.

Imbued with tenderness and earthy humour, the film never crosses the line between sensitivity and mawkish sentimentality, and the action sequences, particularly with the whales, are deftly staged.

Kiesha Castle-Hughes, making an astounding acting debut, is totally credible in the lead role.

Displaying a range of technique and emotion that belies her 11-years and her lack of experience, she charms the audience into identifying with her plight, while simultaneously presenting a portrait of a gutsy young girl, who can more than hold her own with the warrior-boys who are supposed to be her superiors.

Also impressive are Cliff Curtis, as Pai's exiled father, Riwiri Paratene, as the tough, uncompromising Koro, Vicky Haughton, as Pai's grandmother, and the supporting cast, made up entirely of the villagers of Whangara, where the film was shot.

Expect to see this movie, the first to be financed by the New Zealand Film Production Fund, fighting it out in the Best Foreign Film category at next year's Oscars.

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