Koro is completely disillusioned by the fact that his eldest son Porourangi does not want to follow in his footsteps. Koro feels very disgruntled with Porourgani’s reluctance to assume the role of chief as he tells him: ‘I know who you were born to be, who you were meant to be’. There is a constant tension between father and son as Porourgani feels that his father does not even know who he is: ‘You don’t even know who I am’
Paikea senses Koro’s disappointment and she questions her father: ‘why doesn’t he want me?’ Porourgania tells Paikea that Koro is looking for ‘something that doesn’t exist anymore’ and that what Koro needs is a ‘prophet’ in order ‘to lead his people out of darkness’. Paikea cannot fulfil her grandfather’s expectations because she is a girl, thus deepening Koro’s growing sense of frustration and despair. Porourgani explains to Paikea that people have their own identities, dreams and ambitions and that Koro is wrong in dictating his destiny: ‘You can’t just decide who those people are because you want them to be’.
Porourgani wants to live his own life in Germany pursuing his career as an artist. He does not want to be curtailed by societal or familial expectations.
Even though Koro loves his granddaughter, he resents her and blames her for the break in his familial line of chiefs that stretches back to the whale rider himself. He come to regard Paikea inauspiciously: ‘When she was born that’s when everything went wrong for us. That’s where we will find the answers’.Koro believes that it is his sacred duty to establish a new chief to succeed him: ‘I’m gonna need all the first born boys’ so he can teach them ‘the old ways’ of their ancestors. Koro believes that it is impossible for Paikea to succeed him as chief because she is a girl.
It almost appears that Paikea intuitively knows that it is her destiny to be the next chief. Even though she reveres her grandfather, she defies him several times by seeking to acquire the necessary skills to be the next chief. Koro admonishes her for learning taiaha, stick fighting: ‘I’ll deal with you later’.
She defies Koro once again at the religious school when she decides that she wants to sit with the boys: ‘Pai, you’re a girl, go to the back. What did I say? What did I say? Then leave. Go on’. Paikea tells Hemi the reason that she is not allowed to participate in the taiaha is because she is a girl: ‘girls aren’t allowed’.
Koro lists the qualities that a good chief should possess: strength, courage, intelligence and leadership. It is abundantly clear that throughout the film, Paikea embodies all of the necessary attributes needed to be chief. However, her gender precludes her from being, even considered.
Koro admonishes Paikea when the boys fail to retrieve the sacred rei puta. Koro sees this failure as foreboding doom to his community. He feels this impending doom is Paikea’s fault and he banishes her from the house: ‘Right from the beginning you knew this wasn’t for you but you kept coming back’. Paikea is very distraught by her grandfather’s rejection of her. Both her grandmother and Uncle Rawiri’s girlfriend try to reassure Paikea: ‘It’s just for a little while’.
Koro explains the sacred significance of the rei puta: ‘If you have the tooth of a whale then you must have the jaw of a whale to wield it’. Despite the fact that it is Paikea, who retrieves the rei puta, Koro is implacable. He refuses to recognise Paikea’s claim. For Koro, Paikea cannot be desired chief because she is a girl.
Paikea understands Koro’s sense of disappointment and disillusionment saying that ‘it’s not his fault that I’m a girl’. In her speech dedicated to Koro, Paikea proudly acknowledges her ethnic origins: ‘My name is Paikea Apirana and I come from a long line of chiefs, stretching all the way back to Huawei, where our ancestors are’, describing herself ‘as the most recent descendant’. Paikea’s sense of inadequacy is conveyed as Paikea alludes to her guilt and shame: ‘I broke the line of the ancient ones. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, it just happened’.
Paikea sagely states in her speech ‘if the knowledge is given to everyone, then we can be strong ………. And not just the chosen one’. Paikea is aware that her community must adapt to the demands and challenges of the modern era if their community is to survive.
When the cetacean stranding occurs, it symbolises the decimation of this Maori tribe. A distraught Koro believes that Paikea has defiled the sacred place by learning how to perform taiaha, and now the community is being punished.
However, it is clear that Paikea shares an affinity with the whales, as she is able to coax them back into the water. Paikea’s actions are altruistic (selfless) as she puts her own safety in jeopardy in order to save the whales. Paikea’s actions have religious connotations in that she is willing to sacrifice herself in order to bring salvation to the whales: ‘I wasn’t scared to die’. (Connotations of immolation)
When Paikea’s absence is noted, Nanna Flowers hands Koro the rei puta and Koro asks her ‘which one?’ Nanna Flowers anger towards Koro at this moment is clearly palpable as retorts: ‘What do you mean which one?’ She is infuriated at Koro’s obstinate refusal to acknowledge Paikea’s claim.
Her grandfather finally accepts Paikea as the chief when he sees her riding on the whale and realises that it is Paikea, who saved the whales. This is a moment of epiphany for Koro. He is overjoyed when she finally regains consciousness
The whole Maoris community prays for Paikea’s recovery and wellbeing. The charismatic impact of Paikea on her community is evident when one woman says: ‘I’ve been praying to God that the little one wakes up; I’ll give up the smokes’.
The final scenes convey Paikea’s triumph over her society’s prejudice as she is accepted as the next chief of this Maori community. In a scene that is rich in symbolism, the final scene depicts Paikea on a fishing boat, accompanied by both men and women, symbolic of the inauguration of a new style of leadership, one that is inclusive and better equipped to meets the challenges of the modern era. Paikea’s triumph lies in her affirmation of her true identity and role: ‘My name is Paikea Apirana and I come from a long line of chiefs, stretching all the way back to the whale rider’.