This New Zealand film has genuine charm and the advantage of a truly likable young woman (twelve-years-old Keisha Castle-Hughes) in the lead role. It is the story of a girl named Pai who was born a twin. The other was a brother and there was some hope he would lead the people of his Maori clan back to the Old Ways. The opening scenes are in the hospital where Pai narrates her own birth and the death of her brother. The mother dies as well, and the father goes away. Pai feels called to the challenge meant for her brother but her deeply traditional grandfather, who loves her grudgingly, is opposed to her stepping out of her place. There will be a great deal of hurt before he sees the error of his ways.
Pai has an aptitude for the chants and rituals of her people, but it’s difficult to fight off the intrusions of the modern world. The younger generation, especially the males, is more interested in cars and aggressive rock and roll T-shirts than in the practices of the ancestors. They live in a world of bungalows and modern appliances with few signs of the old life except for the meetinghouse. The grandfather bravely founds a school to teach the ancient traditions, but his efforts are undermined by his granddaughter, who would be his best student if he would only let her attend. He teaches the boys the warlike dances and rituals of centuries-old Maori culture – the ways of the haka. In the end, Pai employs Maori magic to summon a pod of whales to the beach and then rides their leader out to sea. The people on the shore think she is lost but she returns to them and there is a tearful hospital reunion. The final scene finds Pai and her repentant grandfather sitting in a large ceremonial canoe paddled by men and women who cherish the Old Ways.
This is a parable of the shift of power told in the language of the old myths. But the emergent metaphor here is both older and newer than the myths; it is the rise of the feminine and the decline of male dominance. Young Pai knows all along that she is the inheritor of the power, but her grandfather will not tolerate a girl in his school. When the boys fail him, he goes to bed and dreams of the ancestors. Pai dives into the sea and retrieves the prize the boys could not find and still he cannot see her destiny. When at last she rides the whale into the deep, he sees the shift and accepts it. At her bedside in the hospital, he prays to her asking her forgiveness. She awakens. Keisha Castle-Hughes was nominated for the Best Actress Academy Award. On another level, this is an exercise in identity reclamation by the Maori community from which the film arises. It’s a healthy exercise but quite possibly the wrong game. It wants us to believe the myth. Pai traces her origins back to Hawaiki, ancestral home of the Maori people.