Busytown by Jolisa Gracewood

Free Wiremu

So The Whale Rider came back to New York on Monday night. I say "came back" because although it was the premiere of the film, the children's book on which the film is based was written in New York in 1985, when Witi Ihimaera was working here. One of the odder visitors to the city that year was a very large, very lost whale, which swam up the Hudson River. Crowds of people turned out to see the creature (my friend Dohra, who grew up here, remembers going to see the whale) but as far as I know, Witi was the only one who dashed home and wrote a book on the strength of it -- in only three weeks, too.

In what might just have been Public Address's first international media junket, I trotted along to the premiere courtesy of the nice people at Investment New Zealand who put me on the list. I'm very glad they did. It's a stunning film, and was stunningly and elegantly presented. Quite an entourage has been brought over to launch the movie here and in Los Angeles: several of the stars of the film, along with Hone Taumaunu, a kaumatua of Ngati Konohi, were karanga-ed into the theatre to introduce the evening. Rawiri Paratene and Keisha Castle-Hughes read a letter from Niki Caro, who couldn't make it because she is about to premiere a little Caro of her own. The letter mentioned that when Ihimaera went to see the whale, he heard (or thought he heard) a Maori woman in the crowd karanga-ing to the whale. It's a spine-tingling image, and New Yorkers got to share something of what that might have felt like thanks to Hone Taumaunu's karakia, the U.S-based Kahurangi kapa haka troupe who performed in the foyer of the theatre as we entered, and the rousing version of the song "Paikea" performed by the cast and performers to kick off the film.

If audience reaction was anything to go by -- a standing ovation at the end -- The Whale Rider will do very nicely here. I'd been warned to bring a hankie, but didn't really start bawling until the credits rolled… it's a slow burn of a film, a straightforward story whose ending you see coming a fair way off, but which rolls towards and over you like a huge, crashing wave. Lisa Gerrard's gorgeous soundtrack certainly helps. I heard quite a few snuffles around me at the more emotional moments, but it was the scene of Pai and Koro trying to restart the outboard motor in a bucket of water that drew a stricken moan of pure and visceral nostalgia from my companion. What reviewers here see as the "bracing otherness of the coastal New Zealand landscape" is, for us lot, the vividly recalled backdrop of a dozen summers.

Loved the chain-smoking aunties, the cars, the school hall... I must admit to also swooning over the untouched 70s décor of Koro and Nanny's house, right down to the switchplates and the carpet. It was an interesting visual echo of that other filmic paean to the beach, Christine Jeffs' Rain, which made a bit of a splash here last year, but confused some viewers. I was actually asked, by well-meaning Americans, why the family in Rain had such a poor and scruffy beach house if the father was really a lawyer. I found myself trying to explain the bach aesthetic, and why it is (or used to be) the thing to retire to a tackily decorated groovy little minimalist shack for the holidays. The some-time summertime 70s bach of Rain is a phenomenon that is steadily disappearing; will the lived-in and well-loved houses of The Whale Rider be next on the shopping list for cash-rich homing expats and escapist others? "It is our whale, and our place," Taumaunu reminded the New York audience, inviting them kindly to come and visit – but not, perhaps, to stay. I'd nail a few things down, if I were him.

What audiences here will make of the film's depiction of Maori culture is anyone's guess. The Whale Rider's community is an extraordinarily isolated one: nobody in the film, as far as I could tell, had a TV or even a radio, or ever bought a Lotto ticket. This all adds to the mythic timelessness of the story, but might give overseas viewers who haven't seen Once Were Warriors the impression that all Maori -- barring the few who escape to work as well-regarded sculptors in Germany -- live in tiny seaside villages where they enjoy card-playing, fishing, performance patriarchy, and recreational smoking (a universal pastime, even in this puritan land: lots of knowing laughs greeted the appearance of a weed-pipe). People are sometimes allergic to immersion in a culture too uncomfortably different from their own: the reviewer for the Village Voice, for example, got all sniffy about what he calls the "aboriginal hoopla" of the plot. Jeez. Still, that's the sort of bracing spade-calling you expect from a hard-bitten New York reviewer. At the Q & A session after the screening, however, no-one had a word to say for themselves. It was astonishing: the guy from Newmarket Films (the distributor) stood up the front saying " Any questions?…Anyone?…Anyone?" while the cast stood there smiling and ready. I was tempted to stand up and say "Ah, yeah, just the one question: how bloody great does it feel to have totally silenced this audience?"

The after-party was held at a place called Gustavino's, which occupies a rather astounding space under the Queensboro Bridge, just next to the Roosevelt Island cable car. (You might know it from the climactic finale to the Spiderman movie). After a walk across a couple of avenues of night-time Manhattan, it was like stepping back into the film: the place was lit with shimmering blue light that made it seem as though we were underwater, and the herringbone bricking on the spectacular vaulted ceiling looked like tekoteko to me. A couple of hundred people happily quaffed New Zealand wines, exchanged opinions about the film and the fingerfood (mussels, but too few, and unidentified cheeseballs were the only things I spotted), and gawped at the stars.

Well, I did. Rawiri Paratene was beaming fit to burst. I had to restrain myself from rushing up and telling him that I used to love him on Playschool. Cliff Curtis was striding round projecting star power like the Hollywood hit that he is (Pablo Escobar, anyone?). He's a handsome fellow and made me feel homesick in an unexpected way; I gazed at his lovely curly hair and thought, gosh, it's a long time since I've patted a lamb. Mana Taumaunu, who played heart-breaking Hemi, seemed a little overwhelmed but was polite enough to smile when I told him I had a little Hemi at home so I was gunning for his character all through the movie. And Keisha Castle-Hughes looked serenely gorgeous in a shocking pink halter and skirt number (by, I think she said, Janine Clarken?) that was wrapped up in an iridescent tulle belted overcoat, like a huge ribbon on a birthday present.

Speaking of birthdays, Grant Roa (who plays the crowd-pleasing Uncle Rawiri – watch out for this man) was lucky enough to celebrate a particularly auspicious one that very day. He looked bloody excellent in an outfit that was a sort of stylized korowai – I suppose you could call it an off-the-shoulder number, except he was wearing it over a shirt and pants. I managed to squeeze myself between him and a rather officious minder so I could ask who'd made it. "Actually… I did!" he grinned happily, "I designed it and cut it out, and my mate sewed it up." What a rock star! Kiwi ingenuity, ya gotta love it.

We finally dragged ourselves home to relieve our babysitting friend, and scooped up a goody-bag on the way out. They call this stuff "chum," as in the buckets of blood-and-guts bait that you throw out the back of a boat to attract the fish, which seemed singularly appropriate to the occasion. And it was good chum, too. Last time I attended a do like this (the 2001 New York premiere of Harry Sinclair's visually delectable but narratively confused The Price of Milk), the pickings were mixed: a bag of milk-bottle lollies (yay!), a Lord of the Rings bookmark, and some dubious literature, including a pamphlet that I saved because I couldn't quite believe it. Called The Film Makers [sic] Guide to New Zealand, it begins "Welcome to the Land of the Long White Cloud, Aoteroa [sic], New Zealand" and details the many features that make New Zealand a marvelous filming location, not least "a light that makes Cinematographers gasp" and the fact that "New Zealander's [sic] work together as a team." (Also, anti-union and anti-drug types will be happy to know, in New Zealand there are "No Teamsters," and "Resources don't get wasted.")

Anyway, I think the publicists have learned their lesson: this time round, all the copy in the advertising brochures had been strictly proofread; more excitingly, each bag contained a bottle of wine (from Tohu Wines, which is billed as the "first indigenous wine company to export high quality wine from New Zealand" – if they were responsible for the excellent Pinot Noir at the party, more power to them), along with a Gala apple, a modest pounamu pendant, and a copy of the book that started it all. Nice touch, that last one; after all, children's literature is one of New Zealand's biggest unsung exports, and unlike feature films, doesn't require a pot of German co-production money to make it big. On that note, nice to see that The Whale Rider is the inaugural beneficiary of the New Zealand Film Production Fund, whose purpose is to make films not just get finished, but look finished. This one certainly does: it's crisp and beautiful and deeply alluring. Watch out for mass strandings of awestruck tourists on a beach near you this summer...