In the Maori culture, in New Zealand, there is a fable passed down of the boy prophet sent from God who rides on the back of a whale and leads his people to prosperity. Because of this fable, and a harsh paternalistic culture, boy babies are cherished and spoiled, while girl babies are not. When Pai is born, she is considered bad luck. Her twin brother and mother both die during the childbirth, and she grows up feeling the shame, sadness and stigma of her situation.
After her birth, her father leaves her in the care of his parents while he travels to Europe to pursue his artistic career. She is raised by her grandparents the best they can. There are some sweet scenes between the stubborn grandfather and Pai. For all his pain and shame, he cannot help but love his granddaughter. And we see her trying her best to please him.
Later, the prodigal son returns home and wants to take his daughter home to Germany with him, she reluctantly agrees. She never goes through with it, but the fact that she was going to go unsettles and hurts the grandfather greatly.
Being an elder of the clan, he teaches a class in Maori traditions and martial arts for the town’s boys. He is looking for the next male leader, since there will be none from his family. Pai listens in and trains in secret. She would like to compete with the boys but is not allowed. Slowly, through her determination, she makes progress until even her grandfather must admit that Pai is not someone he should be ashamed of, but someone he can feel proud of.
This is a wonderful family film. It is a great story of a girl’s strength and determination, but it’s also a beautiful-looking film with shots of the New Zealand shoreline and underwater shots of the whales.
Niki Caro has done a beautiful job of bringing this Wite Ihimaera’s novel to life, and Keisha Castle-Hughes, only 11 at the time of the filming, is wonderful as Pai. You can’t help but be moved when you look into her eyes.