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Twenty Years After ‘Whale Rider,’ There’s Still Much to Love

Writer Lauren Lola on the meaning and representation she found so valuable in the 2002 film

Words by Lauren Lola

Mixed Asian Media: JoySauce is proud to present something very special—a partnership with the ultra talented team over at Mixed Asian Media. In JoySauce’s mission to cover stories from the Asian American and Pacific Islander diaspora, we’ve always considered it incredibly important to include mixed AA+PI perspectives. Since their team already has that piece on lock, we’re delighted they were willing to join forces to help us share even more fresh, funny, interesting, irreverent stories each week. Take it away, MAM!

Everyone remembers their first—their first time seeing themselves on screen, that is. While Hollywood has been making a long overdue push for bettering representation for a large part of the past decade, there was a period where the number of times people seen on screen who weren’t white, male, straight, able-bodied, and/or neurotypical could be counted on a single hand—if there were any to count at all, that is.

Being female, Filipino, and mixed race, there were little to no examples of characters like me growing up. While there was some Filipino American representation by the time I was a teenager, I didn’t yet recognize that as seeing someone like me, especially as someone who was brought up white. All I know is that when I first saw Whale Rider, I saw a young Keisha Castle-Hughes give a moving performance as the protagonist, Paikea Apirana, and it was the first time I saw someone who looked like me onscreen.

Based on Witi Ihimaera’s 1987 novel, The Whale Rider, the film follows a 12-year-old Māori girl, Pai. While she is technically the next in line to become chief of her tribe, her grandfather, Koro, believes it is a role reserved only for males and therefore sees no use for her. While Koro seeks a potential successor from the village boys, Pai secretly trains herself in the ways of the ancestors. Her skills come to be questioned and tested, both by her traditionalist grandfather, and also when a mysterious pod of whales are suddenly beached ashore.

It’s been 20 years since its world premiere at the 27th Toronto International Film Festival. It arrived at a time when international audiences knew its setting, New Zealand (a.k.a. Aotearoa), as the filming location for the Lord of the Rings trilogy. For me, it was another three years before I got to see it, when my dad showed it to me on a Region 4-compatible DVD player. It arrived at a time where that search for deeper identity had begun.

Whale Rider brought some of what I was looking for. While the debate as to whether or not Filipinos can be considered Asian or Pacific Islander is ongoing (and an essay in of itself), it is without question that I saw myself in Pai. There was something empowering about seeing a girl with my skin tone and hair type even, take on the challenges before her with such grace and dignity.

My connection to Pai is more than skin deep, as I saw her be thrust aside by her grandfather, who’s too stubborn in his ways and ego. Sexism from a grandparent is an experience I sadly also know too well, and while I’ll never have the happily ever after that she gets, I still got the motivation to do more than what my grandfather would have ever dared to imagine for me.

Twenty years later, Whale Rider is in an interesting position in the scheme of how much has happened in the world of film and TV since then. Representation has made several strides since then—even for creatives from the Māori community. One of the hottest directors working in Hollywood nowadays is Taika Waititi and one of the Star Wars live-action series has Temuera Morrison as the lead. Even Castle-Hughes is still killing it all these years later, as one of the main characters in FBI: Most Wanted.

On the other hand, it is perplexing to know now that Whale Rider was written and directed by Niki Caro; a non-Māori New Zealand filmmaker who, nearly two decades later, would go on to direct the live-action adaptation of Mulan for Disney. Already, there is something to be said—especially nowadays—that a film centered on a Māori community was overseen by a white filmmaker. Same could be said about her selection as the director of Mulan—a folktale from China—as well. But because of the fact that Whale Rider turned out so beautifully, it really was a head scratcher for me as a viewer why Mulan didn’t have that same level of quality and depth, especially when the stories and messages in them both are so similar.

Beyond the media landscape, the 20th anniversary of Whale Rider arrives at a—for lack of a better word—“interesting” time for the United States; a country where less than two years ago, a woman was sworn in as vice president for the first time, and yet two months ago, Roe v. Wade was overturned by the Supreme Court.

It’s jarring to see how progress can move both forwards and backwards simultaneously. It begs to ask the question that, at this point, I would have hoped we as a society would be long past: How many more stories like Whale Rider need to be told for people to get it in their heads that girls and women are capable of whatever they set their minds to? When will respect be a given rather than a right to constantly fight for? The fact that the Me Too and Time’s Up movements have emerged within the last five years is unsurprising to me, because the constant mistreatment needs to be both called out and brought to an end already. No custom or tradition is worth guarding if it means treating some people lesser than others.

It's been quite a while since I last sat down and watched Whale Rider, and as is the case when watching content you grew up with, you pick up on details you either hadn’t thought about before or are just noticing now. Watching my special edition (Region 1) DVD copy recently, I noticed the following:

  • If there’s any indication that this film has been around for two decades now, the quality of the picture definitely shows it.
  • It’s curious how even with the closed captioning on, whenever there is chanting or singing in Māori, for the most part, the translation is not shown. Saying that it’s “chanting in Māori” can only go so far for those who can’t speak or understand the language.
  • Koro’s critique on Porourangi displaying Māori art for European audiences stood out to me for the first time as a commentary on colonialism, and you can’t help but understand his perspective.
  • I really wish we could have heard all of Pai’s speech. That can be seen as not only encouragement for girls and women to take on leadership roles, but also a call for leaders in the most unexpected of places all around; a message that feels particularly relevant nowadays.
  • I can’t believe I hadn’t noticed this before, but for a film that’s meant to be about female empowerment, there aren’t a lot of female-to-female interactions throughout it, without it being about Koro or some of the other male family members.

Whale Rider has, for the most part, aged beautifully. Watching it has refreshed my memory of why I love it so much and why, even now, I  see so much of myself in the character of Pai. It’s a brilliant story that has a lot to say about tradition, colonialism, privilege, and female empowerment. Even with how much has changed, for better or for worse, in the world since its release two decades ago, its messaging remains just as powerful as ever.

Published on September 12, 2022

Words by Lauren Lola

Lauren Lola is an author, freelance writer, playwright, and screenwriter from the San Francisco Bay Area. She is the author of the novels, An Absolute Mind and A Moment’s Worth, as well as the upcoming graphic novel, Dasig. She has written plays that have been produced both virtually and in-person for theatre groups on the West Coast of the United States, and has penned the short films, “Breath of Writing” and “Interview with an Aswang.” Aside from Mixed Asian Media, Lauren has also had writing featured on The Nerds of Color, CAAMedia, PBS, YOMYOMF, and other outlets and publications. You can find Lauren on Twitter and Instagram @akolaurenlola and on her website, www.lolabythebay.wordpress.com.