“THE HARIMAYA BRIDGE”
Third Extension Keeps Film at the Regal Dole Cannery Theater Until May 20
By Karleen C. Chinen
When Aaron Woolfolk applied to the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program (JET Program) as an assistant language teacher, he requested assignment in the only two Japanese cities he knew anything about: Tokyo or Osaka.
Instead, the young UC-Berkeley graduate was sent to rural Kochi Prefecture on Shikoku island in southern Japan, where the population of the largest city, Kochi City, is about 341,000 — hardly a Tokyo or Osaka.
But in Kochi, Woolfolk found serendipity . . . and the setting for his first full-length feature film, “The Harimaya Bridge.”
The film made its North American premiere at last October’s Hawaii International Film Festival. “The Harimaya Bridge” began its commercial run in Honolulu on April 23. As a result of strong ticket sales and positive audience response, the film’s run has been extended three times and is scheduled to close May 20, unless it is given another extension.
“The Harimaya Bridge” is East meets West at its finest.
Veteran actor Ben Guillory plays Daniel Holder, a retired San Francisco photographer, embittered by his son Mickey’s (Victor Grant) decision to live and work in Japan where Daniel’s father died as a prisoner of war at the hands of the Japanese. Mickey’s decision leaves father and son estranged.
Mickey thrives in Kochi: He enjoys teaching English and is genuinely liked and respected by both his students and his co-workers. And, he is painting to his heart’s content.
When Mickey dies suddenly, his father decides to go to Kochi to gather up Mickey’s paintings and bring them back to San Francisco. He arrives in Japan a bitter man on a single-minded mission — until several secrets force him to open his heart.
“I decided to write this story, about rural Japan because I think a lot of people see urban Japan. But I lived in rural Japan. In fact, most of these locations here, all of the locations here, those are places that I went to and lived there. That’s a part of my life on screen,” filmmaker Aaron Woolfolk told the audience that remained for a Q&A session with him after the film’s final HIFF screening in Honolulu.
Woolfolk has fond memories of his time in Kochi. “I fell in love with the place and actually feel very fortunate to have been sent to rural Japan and to have had that life there.” He said he considered returning for a second year, but decided not to after learning that he had been accepted into the master’s film program at Columbia University. Nevertheless, Kochi was never far from his mind and he continued to go back and forth to Japan to visit friends. As a film student, he made two short films, both of them with a Japan focus.
Woolfolk was successful in pitching his feature length film script to veteran actors Danny Glover and Ben Guillory. In fact, Glover signed on as one of three executive producers. In the film’s press kit, Glover said the kinds of themes in Woolfolk’s script “are difficult to put into projects made in the U.S.” He said films like “The Harimaya Bridge” “risk taking us out of our comfort zone” and explore new dynamics and relationships. “I felt that Aaron’s script had a great potential to bring people together, no matter what cultural differences they have.”
Woolfolk said that he had applied for a development grant from the Walt Disney Company in the project’s early stages. The grant required sponsorship by a nonprofit organization, so Woolfolk applied to the Robey Theatre Company, which Glover and Guillory co-founded in 1994 and named in memory of activist actor/singer Paul Robeson. Robey Theatre sought to create opportunities for black theatre artists and artists of color, particularly black playwrights.
In his mind, Woolfolk said he had cast Glover in the lead role of Daniel — that is, until he saw Guillory in Robey’s production of “The Last Season” a play about the Montgomery Black Kings baseball team.
“When I saw him (Guillory) in that performance, I said ‘Wait a minute, that’s Daniel; that’s the lead guy, and I’ll have Danny Glover play his brother.’”
Japanese actors Saki Takaoka and Misa Shimizu — in fact, the entire Japanese cast — turn in outstanding performances, even down to Sakura Thomas.
The film confronts cultural differences, prejudice and human conflict with cinematic artistry. There are no special effects in this film — just a great story, a talented cast and beautiful cinematography.
And how much did it cost to make the film? “Very, very low seven figures,” said Woolfolk, revealing later that
“The Harimaya Bridge” cost about $2 million to make. Financing came from the U.S., Japan and Korea. “But it’s all relative to Hollywood,” he added, noting that in Hollywood, $2 million is like “pennies on the floor of your car.” In terms of Japan-made films, the sum is quite average, he said. “The Harimaya Bridge,” which incorporates a famous Kochi legend about the love affair between a monk and a beautiful woman, opened last summer in Japan, where Woolfolk said it was well-received. “In Japan, there are a lot of people in their 80s and 90s, and to hear from people of that age group, saying to me that they enjoyed my film and that they learned something from the film, to me that’s amazing to have someone at that age say they learned something from me.”
Others said they couldn’t believe that an American had made the film, that although he is an American, he possesses “a Japanese soul.”
Woolfolk’s “Japanese soul” likely comes from his early years of watching classics like “Ikiru” by celebrated Japanese director Akira Kurosawa and “Tokyo Monogatari” by Yasujiro Ozu.
Until this spring, “The Harimaya Bridge” has been on the film festival circuit. Now it faces its real test.
“Having lived in Japan and having seen what kinds of films come out of Hollywood that show Japan — the usual stereotypes . . . I saw people in Japan as real people, as normal people, everyday people, and that’s what I wanted to show in this film.”
Writer/director Aaron Woolfolk will do in-person Q&A sessions at the Dole Cannery Theater this weekend, May 14 and 15, prior to the following screenings. He will speak at the following times:
Friday, May 14: 12:50 p.m., 3:50 p.m., 6:50 p.m.
Saturday, May 15: 12:50 p.m., 3:50 p.m., 6:50 p.m.