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Hawai’i International Film Festival 2020: Gathering Community


If there’s any film festival that could possibly benefit from this pandemic era’s new virtual normal, consider the one in the most remote major city in the world, Honolulu. (The city’s closest neighbor with a population over 500k is San Francisco, a mere 2386 miles away). The launch pad for Hawaiian filmmakers, a cultural centerpiece for cinematic voices across the Pacific Islands and Polynesia, and a proven showcase for East Asian genre and arthouse cinema, the Hawai’i International Film Festival has always spread its proverbial audience net far and wide, with theaters filled with high-school surfers one moment, and the next elderly Japanese Hawaiian jidai-geki fans, Polynesian third-gender activists, Samoan footballers, university anime lovers, Tongan youth, Okinawan foodies, homeless-rights advocates, Chamorro cinephiles and the usual global cabal of K-drama enthusiasts. Even if you weren’t particularly part of a community, chances are you’d wind up in one at a screening, learning from both a film and the people around you. Forced online thanks to the pandemic, this year’s quarantine version certainly wasn’t the 40th anniversary blow-out that HIFF had dreamed of, but the festival still found a way to create a virtual version of community, one that had the added appeal of being made available nationwide until Nov. 29th. The Hawaiian and Pacific Islander diaspora is everywhere, after all, so if you can’t gather your community together to share culture, then spread that culture to your community far away. 

Hawai’i’s own local filmmaking wave continues this year, with a welcome diversity in approaches and aesthetics even within its four feature narrative films. Slow-burning, street-level character studies like Christopher Kahunahana’s much-anticipated Waikiki and Mitchel Viernes’ Water Like Fire share the program with Stefan Schaefer’s laid-back comedy, Aloha Surf Hotel, and Jason Lau’s J-Horror-inspired supernatural thriller Story Game, while documentaries focus both on cultural highlights, like Gerard Elmore’s gorgeously shot look at a popular hula competition, Ka Huaka’i: The Journey to Merrie Monarch, and themes that definitely aren’t part of tourist promotions, like Anthony Banua-Simon’s sprawling combination of personal family narrative, Kauai labor history and cinephile labor of love, Cane Fire, or Gary Pak’s heartfelt, talk-story study of the birth of the revolutionary Native Hawaiian land-rights struggle, Huli: Kokua Hawaii and the Beginnings of the Revolutionary Movement in Contemporary Hawai’i. As always, the shorts program offers an even wider array of themes and range, from animated retellings of scenes from ancient Hawaiian history (Kapaemahu) to live-action versions of modern struggles (Hawaiian Soul), along with present-day investigations of homelessness (Kama’aina: Child of the Land) and mental health (Red House; En Route).

We’ve followed the journey of Kahunahana’s Waikiki in past HIFF recaps (it’s been in the works for at least three years), and we’ll have a separate profile and interview coming up. Suffice to say its portrait of one Native Hawaiian woman’s long journey into (or out of) night represents a milestone for local filmmaking, with a mesmerizing performance by lead actress Danielle Zalopany. Avoiding the blows of her abusive boyfriend, trying to make ends meet with several jobs—school teacher of Hawaiian language by day, by night a hula dancer for tourists and karaoke hostess for old men—our heroine slowly slips into homelessness and nightmare, her only refuge a dream of family and memories of the earth. Part grime-covered, neo-realist exploration of indigenous trauma and houselessness, part eerie surrealist fantasy, the film sets a mood of living nightmare you won’t soon shake. The first feature narrative by a Native Hawaiian (Kanaka Maoli) filmmaker, Waikiki offers multiple readings and rewards.

A similar life-on-the-margins setting and a comparably fierce performance from Randall Galius anchors Water Like Fire, which tracks a young woman (Taiana Tully) and her drug-addicted brother (Galius), both after and before two tragic incidents. There are enough glimpses of Hawaiian sea and surf to remind viewers of the setting, but Viernes focuses on the daily grind of working-class Hawaiian life, where crap inland apartments and asphalt sidewalks are the norm over white-sand beaches, and where going surfing is less daily ritual than the only way to stay sane. Viernes’ naturalistic, character-driven approach places great demands on his two young leads; Tully has possibly the more difficult role as the serious, “steady” presence, but Galius shines as the troubled younger brother. 

Tully also stars in Aloha Surf Hotel, displaying an easy-going girl-next-door charm that fits well with this comedic look at a washed-up, middle-aged surfer (popular Hawaiian comic/radio personality Augie Tulba) who has to get his life together in order to help a struggling family-run hotel survive. Maui-based director Schaefer, who along with his producing partner Brian Kohne have created several features there like Maui (2017) and Get a Job (2011), keeps the plot moving breezily, albeit with a few less rewarding comedic gusts, while the presence of veteran actors Matt Corboy and Branscombe Richmond allows Tulba the confidence to be less “Augie T, Comic!” and more “Augie Tulba, actor.” A warm-hearted coming-of-age tale, albeit one where the coming-of-age is by a man in his 50s, Aloha Surf Hotel even makes room to address some of the same issues that haunt its more serious brethren, with issues of displacement, the disappearance of “aloha” and the threat of corporate takeovers of small family businesses all raised. “This is a very local movie, with a theme that will resonate with what’s going on now,” Augie T noted in the post-film Zoom Q&A. “There’s a lot of positivity, a lot of aloha….I think this will show a sign of Hawaii that a lot of people want to see.”

A Hawaii-Japan co-production filmed in both locales, Jason Lau’s Story Game pays homage to the Japanese film industry, specifically its tales of the supernatural. (Formerly the home of multiple Japanese-language movie theaters before the rise of video, and now the home of a cable network continually screening Japanese cinema, Hawai’i possibly consumes as many Japanese movies as Japan). Story Game takes the horror-film chestnut of three attractive dopes in the woods and gives it a spin worthy of both Hawaii and Japan, as each character takes turns “talking story,” island-style, though with all three of their tales set in Japan, and drawing upon both modern and ancient Japanese ghost stories. Special praise should go to longtime local cinematographer Anne Misawa, whose spectacular images move from darkened woodsy campfires to sinister Tokyo high schools, sun-streamed Japanese forests in the midst of samurai battles and claustrophobic underground tunnels. 

Merging film history with the personal and the political, the documentary Cane Fire begins as a family story, with filmmaker Banua-Simon following his Kauai-based elderly great-uncle around the island, hoping to learn more about either the sugar industry that employed him (and much of the island), or the Kauai-set films he may have been a part of. A secret history of labor unionization, racial discrimination and police crackdowns slowly begins to reveal itself, while a trip to another “Hollywood-ized” locale—Kauai’s now-abandoned Coco Palms Hotel, once the setting for Elvis movies and other invented myths—opens up yet another history buried in the background, that of indigenous land-rights, and the corporations eager to overlook them. A Los Angeles Plays Itself as told by the Hawaiian uncle you never had, whose way of talking story leads one down several winding, somewhat convoluted yet always interesting paths, Cane Fire represents the experimental side of cinema in Hawai’i, in its most radical yet personal form.

On a related note, few works are as personal—and radical in spirit, if not in form—as Huli: Kokua Hawaii and the Beginnings of the Revolutionary Movement in Contemporary Hawai’i. Culled from years worth of interviews with the leaders of a 1971 Kalema Valley indigenous-land-rights protest that helped launch the modern-day Hawaiian Renaissance, the film foregrounds a history that is being lived again, in the form of the Mauna Kea movement and other ongoing battles to protect Native lands from outside takeover. The film itself is as direct and uncompromising as many of the activists it features, as it basically consists of one-on-one interviews with a subject, interspersed with a handful of stock photographs. (In fact, most of the interviews were edited down from even lengthier versions available on YouTube). Nonetheless, as a portrait of 1970s revolutionary fervor it’s invaluable, and as timely now as ever. The end credits, which lists the passing of many of the subjects after their interviews, is a reminder that while their voices may be gone, their stories will continue on. Less a work of art than an act of bearing witness, it’s also a film that actually seems to benefit from viewing from home rather than in a theater, in that the names and struggles it references can be more easily looked up and learned from.

Among the festival’s “Made in Hawai’i” shorts, several stood out, with the virtual streaming process enabling audiences to pick and choose a film at a time, if needed, and to find their own way through the program. Richly animated in golds and rusts by Daniel Sousa in a manner reminiscent of Michel Ocelot’s Kirikou and the Sorceress, Kapaemahu (Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, Dean Hamer, Joe Wilson) retells the ancient origin story of four fabled stones in Waikiki, created to honor four “dual male and female spirit” healers from Tahiti who brought the healing arts to Hawai’i. Its post-film Zoom Q&A was particularly rewarding, with a welcoming hula performed by an Oakland-based collective and several insights from the creative team. “I am Kanaka — a native person in an island nation that was illegally overthrown and continues to be occupied by a foreign power,” notes Wong-Kalu in the film’s press kit. “Our survival as indigenous people depends on our ability to know and practice our cultural traditions, to speak and understand our language, and to feel an authentic connection to our own history. That is why I wanted to make a film about Kapaemahu, and to write and narrate it in Olelo Niihau – the only form of Hawaiian that has been continuously spoken since prior to the arrival of foreigners. We need to be active participants in telling our own stories in our own way.”

A more contemporary spotlighting of Hawaiian cultural resistance could be found in ‘Āina Paikai’s Hawaiian Soul, on legendary Hawaiian activist George Helm. A singer, guitarist, cultural philosopher and committed political campaigner, Helm disappeared in 1977, aged 26, while protesting the U.S. Navy occupation and serial bombing of the island of Kaho’olawe. Rather than focus on Helm’s entire life, Hawaiian Soul wisely narrows in on one small moment of community action, when Helm and his colleagues must gain the blessing of several elders on Maui. Shot with a period-suitable, deliriously sun-kissed ’70s sheen, the film captures the spirit of young activists just awakening to their voice. “A lot of people don’t know who he is, and so this is an opportunity to use him as a role model to tell our story as Hawaiians,” Paikai mentioned in the Zoom Q&A. “George was just one guy, back then, but you look now at all those videos from Mauna Kea, and you see all these people, and they’re somehow connected to George.”

Filmmakers don’t have to look to the past to express their Hawaiian pride, of course, or to interrogate the issues that affect so many Hawaiians today, whether indigenous or not. Kimi Howl Lee’s Kama’āina (Child of the Land) begins as a narrative, with a queer teenager facing homelessness in Honolulu; it follows her into the massive real-life homeless encampment Pu’uhonua o Wai’anae and offers its organizers a chance to speak. Gerard Elmore’s Red House traces a young man who returns to his childhood neighborhood, and faces both the memory of an earlier event, and the very present-day consequences of another. Framing its tale of personal trauma against the spectacular, timeless backdrop of the region’s bays and mountains, it succeeds in giving its universal theme a specifically Hawaiian locale. 

One of the champions of the local film scene, Elmore also helps organize the local Ohina Film Labs, which provides mentorship and screening opportunities for emerging talents. His second film in the festival, Ka Huaka’i: The Journey to Merrie Monarch, follows three hula troupes as they prepare for the region’s acclaimed Merrie Monarch hula competion, the “Super Bowl of Hula.” Funded by Hawaiian Airlines, it’s definitely the most audience-friendly film at the festival due to its recognizable theme and setting, and will undoubtedly be a heavily requested streaming title by those anxious for a nostalgic taste of home. That said, it’s also a beautiful film to witness, with riveting closeups of the performers, chanters, and kumu hula (teachers of hula) capturing their focus and emotion. Shots of bandaged toes and ankle braces reveal the physical tolls the dance takes, while final performances shot amidst Hawaii’s natural beauty bring to light the connection that the art has to the land that inspired it.

Beyond the local scene, HIFF also offers a wide array of Pacific Islander shorts and features, as well as some of the more talked-about East Asian titles released this year; unlike many other festivals, which may lean towards either arthouse cinema or more commercialized genre fare, HIFF offers both, ranging from Korean actioneers like Hitman: Agent Jun and The Swordsman to more cerebral works like Lucky Chan-sil. Hong Kong fans will appreciate a spotlight on legendary director Ann Hui (Boat People), while Japanese cinephiles can catch Miwa Nishikawa’s Koji Yakusho-starring Under the Open Sky. 

HIFF’s commitment to Asian American cinema is especially rewarding in this addition. HIFF’s Opening Night Centerpiece was Lee Isaac Chung’s Steven Yeun-starring family drama, Minari (already an Oscar contender for film, director, and star). Bao Tran (a HIFF “veteran” whose earlier shorts had appeared in the festival) brought his warm, surprisingly comic tribute to ’80s Hong Kong martial arts films, Paper Tigers, about three former martial-arts proteges, now (un)comfortably middle-aged, who must reunite to fight their estranged master’s killer. Patricio Ginelsa returned to HIFF as well with Lumpia With a Vengeance, the sequel to his zero-budget 2003 film Lumpia, this time starring none other than MMA fighter Mark Muñoz and Danny Trejo. A tongue-in-cheek send-up of comic-book superheroes, Lumpia With a Vengeance follows “Lumpia Man,” a superhero who battles villainy with lumpia and all manner of flour-based, food-in-roll-form combat. Set in “Fogtown USA,” a not-particularly disguised Daly City, CA (Ginelsa’s hometown, the US city with the biggest Filipino population, and, coincidentally, the closest town of over 100k residents to Honolulu), the film is boisterously inventive in its deconstruction of superhero tropes, entertaining on its own and even more so as a unique love letter to Filipino and Filipino American culture, even featuring an all-Filipino soundtrack. If appetizer-wielding superheroes aren’t your thing, possibly another Filipino American film rooted in genre, Mallorie Ortega’s The Girl Who Left Home, may appeal. This time it’s the Broadway musical that anchors this lively story of a young musical theater hopeful (Haven Everly) who must return home to Maryland to care for her mother, and possibly help her family’s restaurant survive. As well-versed in its genre as Paper Tigers or Lumpia With a Vengeance is to theirs, with characters bursting into song as often as the others’ burst into fights, The Girl Who Left Home offers just as many surprises as well, including a mother/daughter relationship rarely seen onscreen. 

Chung, Tran, Ortega, and basically the entire Lumpia team all appear for informative, informal Zoom Q&As with their respective films, with Tran and Ortega in particular bonding with their festival hosts. Other HIFF Zoom Q&As to consider (all available until Nov. 29th) include conversations with local stars-turned-international-figures Jason Scott Lee and Keala Settle; festival awardees Lana Condor and Rachel Brosnahan; guest filmmakers such as Ursula Liang, Bao Nguyen and Roseanne Liang, and an insightful three-panel discussion, The Way Forward, on Black-led social movements, multi-ethnic identity and cross-cultural caregiving during the pandemic, each featuring a host of guest filmmakers, curators and scholars. 

Such Zoom dives are one way for festivals to recreate the sense of community that’s gone missing during this era of quarantines and solitary streamings. Audiences can find their own way to connect and find their own community, of course. Seeking out common threads in a festival programming and immersing oneself in them is one way; after experiencing a double bill of Lumpia With a Vengeance and The Girl Who Left Home, you’ll suddenly find yourself sitting at home, missing your Filipino auntie, or the Filipino auntie you strangely now think you have. A night with several Hawaiian documentaries on indigenous rights struggles (and the googling there-of), and you’ll be ready to join the fight for Mauna Kea with anyone. Festival-going, especially in this quarantine era, rewards the curious, so seek out the stories you barely know, or the ones you’ve never even heard of. You may even find a community to be a part of, or to at least learn from. 

The Hawai’i International Film Festival runs until Nov. 29th, with most films and recorded Q&A’s available nationwide. You can find more details here.  

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