Whale Rider
Five Films That Explore Identity
Henry Golding

Henry Golding

Actor

Actor Henry Golding has starred in films such as Crazy Rich Asians and A Simple Favor. His new film, Monsoon, about a British Vietnamese man who returns to Saigon for the first time in decades, is now available on VOD.

There are so many ways to look at identity in film, for identity is both something given to (or even forced upon) us, but it’s also something we can sometimes achieve as we search for meaning in our lives. None of these suggestions are right, nor are any of these suggestions wrong. The answer to identity is complex and absolutely up to one’s interpretation. I come from a mixed heritage, Malaysian and British, and grew up in both cultures. So I find the discussion of identity fascinating, even if I often hear people try to dictate how I should identify myself. But, identity these days is far more layered than ever before, and every person has their own story. 

Here is my list of five films that explore different aspects of identity. 

1

East Is East

1999

WHERE TO WATCH

East Is East is a story about an English-Pakistani family and their struggle of cultural identity in early 1970s England. An immigrant father (Om Puri) is stuck in his Pakistani cultural vise as he wrestles with his children’s ever-evolving sense of Britishness. It’s all told with that cheeky British self-deprecating humor that we all love. Evolving with the times yet finding the balance with keeping traditions is tricky, but love always wins where there is, finally, acceptance. 

WHERE TO WATCH
East Is East
1999
96 Mins | R
In 1970s England, a tradition-minded Pakistani shop owner loses control of his Anglicized offspring.


2

Whale Rider

2002

WHERE TO WATCH

Whale Rider tells the story of a young girl named Pai, granddaughter of the chief of a Maori tribe in New Zealand, whose twin brother, the future chief, dies along with her mother in childbirth. After this great loss, her father flees, leaving Pai as the only family member in line to lead the tribe, but, as a girl, tradition bars her from leadership. And so, ironically, tradition may itself lead to the death of the tribe. As a member of the Sarawak tribe of Malaysia, whose traditional culture is also under threat of extinction, I related to Pai’s predicament and loved the film’s message: Sometimes having to adapt rules for the survival of one’s culture is necessary.

WHERE TO WATCH
Whale Rider
2002
101 Mins | PG-13
A Maori girl (Keisha Castle-Hughes) defies her grandfather (Rawiri Paratene).


3

Sepet

2004

This one hits home as it’s based in Malaysia, where I was born, and where, still to this day, negative discussions of interracial relationships happen. Sepet is the tale of a Chinese-Malaysian boy who falls in love with a Malay girl and all the pressures and racial expectations that society places on its youth. Granted, 16 years later perhaps the narrative has dated a bit. But one can’t help but feel the undertones of judgmental eyes even in today’s times, and this wonderful film puts a truly human face on those who suffer from such judgments. 

WHERE TO WATCH
Sepet
2004
104 Mins
Two young lovers cope with family and social pressure.


4

Rebel Without a Cause

1955

WHERE TO WATCH

The all-time James Dean classic. At a time when the average household was old-fashioned and rigid, a young man fights for self-expression and identity. It explores the coming-of-age challenges of adulthood, individuality and impending responsibility. We all have “gateways” into becoming an adult; for me, it was when I flew the coop and moved to London from my family home in Surrey. The moment of realization that you have to take control of your own destiny is a strong and sharp moment of clarity for the self. 

WHERE TO WATCH
Rebel Without a Cause
1955
111 Mins | PG-13
Volatile teens (James Dean, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo) with feckless parents witness tragedy.


5

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

2013

WHERE TO WATCH

The tale of a photo manager for LIFE magazine who spends his time daydreaming about being confident and courageous, and then finally goes out in search of adventure. And even when his adventures are over, he still may have a further journey of discovery to make. We all go through many iterations in life; I myself was a hairstylist in London who became a television host, and then transformed into an actor. The search for identity is a never-ending joy, and even when we feel as though we are secure in our own skin, life always finds a way of surprising us. Allow your identity to evolve, and it might take you on some grand adventures. 

WHERE TO WATCH
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
2013
114 Mins | PG
A man (Ben Stiller) escapes his monotonous life by inhabiting a world of exciting daydreams.


© 2020 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences