But You Have Until Nov. 29 to Prove Me Wrong
Your Kung-Fu Might Be Stronger Than Mine, But My HIFF Is Way, Way Better
Growing up an introverted film-culture fangirl on Maui, I was the one hissing in the halls of Baldwin High School, “Oh my god, Darth Vader is … Luke Skywalker’s father!” — as the ‘70s closed on what movie-genre scholar David Butler would later call the start of the “Golden Age of Fantasy Film.” Back when most of my Wailuku and Kahului classmates had yet to see “The Empire Strikes Back” or even heard of an ewok, we all learned what a spoiler was, then and there.
I was the one who, as a University of Hawai‘i- Mänoa undergraduate, did scut work for the new Hawai‘i International Film Festival, shortly after HIFF’s birth in 1981 under the auspices of the East-West Center on UHM campus. Part of an army of volunteers in the university community who aided HIFF founder Jeannette Paulson (now Hereniko) in her vision, I recall photocopying handouts on notable U.S. documentarians Frederick Wiseman, Barbara Kopple and Les Blank.
A movie geek long before Japanese personality
-type “otaku” (an obsessive fan who has memorized pop-culture minutiae) had been identified, I was the one who sat in the front row of UHM’s Hemenway Hall to attend my first HIFF discussion panel. I heard my heroes, PBS movie critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, speak and asked them a question on rival film reviewers. Their “Sneak Previews” TV show, where the two newspaper writers critiqued the latest movies showing in theaters, had been required family viewing in my childhood household. My sansei mother adored postwar Japanese dramas and obake films, and my Depression-era-raised Nisei dad knew everything about classical-era silent movies.
I am the one whose parents — neither of whom had attended college — had blessed me with the name of one of the few female directors working at the height of the Hollywood studio system. Ida Lupino, a spunky movie actress, became a filmmaker with her own production company.
Later, having graduated with a BA in Asian studies and living in Tökyö, I was the one with the most bizarre HIFF flashback of all time. While on a date with a sansei guy who had looked really familiar, I could not put my finger on where I knew him from. But when we chatted about a kotonk Japanese American documentarian whose work we both liked, I suddenly realized … he had starred in that director’s only narrative film.
I was the one who then instantly remembered my date’s face, projected large across the Varsity Theatre screen for almost two hours, as I had sat in the HIFF audience a few years earlier. And I was the one who spent the rest of the night apologizing for not recalling his performance at all (especially as he had played the main character). Worst. First. Date. Ever.
I am that one, who left a secure academic job of seven years — as a tenured community-college professor in the social sciences — to devote 12 years of my life to studying screenplay structure and science-fiction/fantasy cinema.
And I am the one whose initial months of the COVID-19 pandemic found me doing my first substantial work on a film’s pre-production stage, for a feature by Pacific Islander and Hawaiian auteurs that will be part-fantasy/part-fable, but mostly documentary.
To riff on lyrics by Lizzo, I am 100% that film nerd.
That said, here is how (and a little bit on what) I HIFF, in this very unusual year where most of this globally beloved, Pacific and Asian movie festival has gone virtual.
Note: This essay contains choke film spoilers. Plenny, plenny plot reveals. (No, I have not learned my lesson since high school.)
Secrets to Fine Festivaling
One of the secrets to HIFF is to view the films in their optimal venues. In the old (!) days where
everyone physically went into theaters, this meant that if a movie was going to show multiple times, provided that your schedule was open, you would try to select the best screening venue possible: the one with projectors equipped with the latest technology, good-sized or -shaped screens, a decent sound system and comfortable seating. A sign that you chose right was that any live filmmaker commentary or discussion panel that HIFF planners might have
organized, as a bonus to the showing, was probably going to be held in that theater, too. If you chose right, you could get a great theatrical experience then sit in for that live “extra” event.
But with HIFF 2020, many of the festival’s rules have changed. The Hawai‘i International Film Festival, this year celebrating its 40th anniversary, has so far met with the challenge of minimizing coronavirus transmission risks admirably. Most of its 2020 slate of over 200 films from 45 countries is safely streaming on the website (hiff.org/), usually from Thursday, Nov. 5, through Sunday, Nov. 29 (some exceptions are noted below). Conversations with filmmakers are now conducted in separate, webinar-style, live-streamed events, such as the excellent one I viewed on Nov. 11, featuring Hong Kong director Ann Hui. The venerable auteur of “Boat People” was hosted by George Wang of the UHM Academy for Creative Media. Wang and filmmaker Man Lim Chung, who directed this year’s documentary “Keep Rolling” about Hui’s remarkable life, asked her questions about her body of work.
The festival is also screening a handful of movies in Consolidated Theaters’ Olino, Mililani, Pearlridge and Ward locations (hiff.org/theater-screenings). HIFF organizers have assigned to theatrical venues a combination of local indie movies (for example, “Story Game”), recent Asian art films (e.g., “Hokusai”), genre-pic offerings (“Lumpia With a Vengeance,” a Filipino action-comedy, being one example), eye-opening documentaries (the edgy “MLK/FBI” among many others) and clustered shorts (such as “Made in Hawai‘i Shorts” 1 and 2). I yearn for theatrical viewing like a steady ache from a missing limb — but is any film worth exposure to a virus that might scar you for life, that could put your loved ones at risk?
To me, a more safely distanced viewing mode is HIFF’s exciting return to the drive-in theater form. I am thrilled that organizers are screening select movies at outdoor community venues, old-school (hiff.org/drive-in-schedule). Locations include Ala Moana Center which co-sponsors these showings with HIFF, as well as venues arranged by other co-sponsor Kamehameha Schools. Through that last sponsor, Windward Mall and the Varsity Building on University Ave. have repurposed parking lots to become millennial drive-ins.
Another secret of HIFF is that you have to know which film tickets run out fast, and get them first — that is: decide which HIFF pass to purchase, buy it, then reserve your particular movie ticket on the website, pronto. My husband and I were quick to snap up tickets ($30 for a car of 2) for the “Kanaka Maoli New Wave” movie night, to be projected drive-in style at Windward Mall — these sold out the day that we made our online purchase. We are fans of Erin Lau, Ty Sanga and the other talented local Maoli filmmakers whose short movies will air at this last drive-in event on Nov. 22.
To view the freshest cinematic trends, pick out a few of the “hot” movie premieres (though frankly, most are only Hawai‘i premieres, not global, so just “new” to here). These films typically screen only for a day to a couple of days, not the whole Nov. 5-29 streaming period of most HIFF entries. You can identify them by scanning the dates in the last column on hiff.org/hiff40-virtual-schedule, which lists most movies by their exhibition periods (except individual shorts and special events).
I found out too late about “Minari,” the trendy Korean American film we ended up missing that starred “The Walking Dead’s” Steven Yeun, which held its one-day premiere on Nov. 5, both online and at Ward. Of the remaining premieres, I will be catching the Mexican dystopian thriller “New Order” (playing only Wednesday, Nov. 25) and HIFF 40’s official closing feature, “Waikïkï” (streaming from Nov. 25 to 29 and showing at Ward on Saturday, Nov. 28), by one of my favorite local filmmakers, Chris Kahunahana, whose social drama is said — by some — to be the first feature-length narrative film made by a Native Hawaiian writer-director (others have given the 2013 feature “The Haumana” this distinction).
A graduate of the Sundance Institute’s Native Lab, and the director of highly praised shorts such as the avant-garde “Lāhāina Noon” (vimeo.com/124536320), Kahunahana has many local film fans looking forward to his movie about a financially struggling, young Hawaiian woman at a crossroads of her life (for more on “Waikīkī” and its director, see salon.com/2020/10/26/waikiki-film-christopher-kahunahana/).
A last hint for happy HIFFing: The most useful page of the sometimes-confusing festival website is the “Film Program” index at fp.hiff.org/films/index/a/9999. In the search box at the top, you can enter any of the movies recommended in this article, to learn more about them. You can also select movie types by country, genre and other categories in the pull-down menus on the right.
Finally, for cineastes curious about where the future of film is headed, select “Virtual Reality” in that Film Program’s “Event Type” pull-down menu. Several educational 21st century VR and participatory experiences lie in wait for you here, including “One Square Mile, 10,000 Voices.” This interactive documentary about the Manzanar concentration camp of Owens valley, California — where, during World War II, thousands of Americans of Japanese Ancestry were interned — lets you explore memories, sounds and reflections located geographically across the site, as you choose where to go within the incarceration center. You can even record your own family stories or accounts of loved ones, as part of this “living document of resistance, resilience, and community.”
Making Movies Move You Most (Say That Five Times Fast)
For maximum impact, I recommend watching movies in conversation with other movies. All art is a tradition of discourse (intense, committed discussion) over time, expressed through engaging aesthetic forms. Here are three such “conversations” you can have about the 40th festival’s films, mostly shorts. If you HIFF this way, you will find yourself comparing plots, characters and styles while pondering the movies’ very human and humanistic messages.
Cultural Animated Shorts. Since the late 2010s, local animation has been impacted by the creative efforts of Michael Q. Ceballos, whose Twiddle Productions Inc. films (vimeo.com/twiddleproductions) set the precedent by making culturally sensitive, artistic alliances with Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander storytellers in the company’s production process — rather than follow the Hollywood development standard of greedily appropriating, then whitewashing, cultural stories without regard for the communities they come from. Twiddle’s annual Cultural Animation Film Festival has inspired a half-generation of young Hawai‘i animators to tell magical and whimsical stories in their own audiovisual language true to their ethnic and national communities since 2017 (facebook.com/culturalanimationfilmfestival/).
Cosmopolitan Academy for Creative Media faculty Laura Margulies, Lisette Flanary, the aforementioned Wang and Vilsoni Hereniko (Paulson’s husband) have also supported regional animation styles when teaching young filmmakers. These different influences have produced a new wave of Hawaiʻi-based cartoons with their content and visual language re-invented to be less Disney, more local-community shaped.
The result: Kanaka Maoli animator and filmmaker Kalilinoe Detwiler’s fantastic “Pua Ka Uahi (Where Smoke Rises…)” re-imagining Hawaiian folklore about the young fire goddess Pele, who in this short film clashes with playful shapeshifter Kamapuaʻa, as both race from Puna to Hilo. Elegantly yet entertainingly presenting these much-troped Hawaiian spiritual figures as young-adult superheroes, completely in ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i (without English translation), Detwiler engages the audience through clear storytelling beats, in turns comical and thrilling. Her animation and Hawaiian voice-performer team (including UHM Kanaka Maoli literature Prof. ku‘ualoha ho‘omanawanui) achieve a marvelous feminist fusing of action and culture.
For those more addicted to “Sailor Moon” and the “Powerpuff Girls” than mo‘olelo, “Pua Warriors,” by Japanese American writer-director Sophia Whalen, introduces viewers to a kick-ass team of multiracial local girls, her punchy, exaggerated action sequences looking as if they came straight out of anime-influenced Cartoon Network – but with local cultural references and character types. Both films were made by ACM students, including in their artistic team talented local animator and (now) ACM graduate Gavin Arucan, who I predict will become a force in cultural animation in the future.
Lovers of more artsy animation might enjoy the stylized “once upon a time” visual language of legendary Hawai‘i, in Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu (Kumu Hina), Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson’s “Kapaemahu,” a bold reclaiming of LGBTQ themes in Hawaiian myth and folklore. This haunting short film tells the origin of four sacred stones in Waikïkï beach but also raises subtextual political points, challenging viewers to ask why the sexuality of the main characters have been forgotten (i.e., erased).
LGBTQ Offerings. Sometimes, the best films to watch are ones that will fail. You, as an audience member. The viewing community they are meant to reach. Humanity in general (well, okay, most movies are not that bad … I think). But then the emotional experience — of interrogating what went wrong, why it didn’t work and why you feel so, well, damn betrayed — can get you to ruminate on the film subject in ways even deeper than a good movie can.
This was my experience with “Midnight Swan,” written and directed by Japanese filmmaker Eiji Uchida. Promoted as a “fresh perspective on a narrative about unexpected connection and love,” this family drama about transgender female entertainer Nagisa taking in a tween relative, the cis-gender ballerina Ichika, when the latter’s mother had proven too drunken and abusive to be a good parent, gave me high hopes due to its seemingly trans-friendly premise. But when every major LGBTQ character in the movie (except perhaps Ichika who has a brief relationship with a female friend) ends up tragically dying in melodramatic, drawn-out sequences, I had to check my historical queer-cinema clock, to make sure we were not in the 1970s or 1980s (nope: it was a 2020 movie).
It left such a bad taste in my mouth that I immediately viewed two marvelous short documentaries, “Colors of Kaua‘i” and “Kama‘äina (Child of the Land),” which handle LGBTQ issues in a more empowering, complex, contemporary way not solely (or nihilistically) focused on the destructive effects of homo- and trans-phobic discrimination.
“Colors” is about the first Gay Pride Parade and Festival on Kaua‘i, organized by the local YWCA, directed with careful sensitivity by Mark Miller. His intimate interviews with a range of island locals include trans, cis, and other members of the community for whom such a small event on a small island, means so, so much. From a young queer person who had traveled from her current residence in the U.S. continent, back home to the Garden Isle specifically for the parade; to an elected out-gay Hawaiian politician who has witnessed tremendous changes in local and U.S. culture regarding attitudes about sexuality and gender; to a frank and funny transgender female entertainer who steals scenes, this uplifting family educational film hits all the right spots. Kimi Howl Lee’s powerful narrative short, “Kama‘äina,” mixes fiction with social history by bringing its houseless, queer female protagonist into Pu‘uhonua O Wai‘anae, the well-known organized encampment of real homeless advocate Auntie “Twinkle” Borge, giving shelter to those without houses on the leeward side.
Finding Family through Inter-Generational Stories of Place. The festival’s strength has long been its ability to bring to island viewers screen stories of place, generations of family and compassion across cultures. If you don’t know how to start HIFFing, simply binge on these two documentaries and one docu-fictional short, one after another. “Longing for Hawai‘i” (nonfiction), “Finding Dohi” (nonfiction) and “Hawaiian Soul” (biopic) are exquisite pieces of cinema, accumulating in your throat as your heart burns up through it. “Longing,” by mainland-raised Maoli filmmaker Katia Barricklow, tells of generations of her family who come together in quietly moving interviews to talk about the loss and regaining of a culture. A personal approach to political issues such as decolonization and forced assimilation, it moves from these individual stories to the annals of modern Hawaiian history, in deft edits and engaging visual sequences put together from the family archives.
Similarly, “Finding Dohi,” by Japanese American female director Amber McClure, follows the filmmaker’s sansei mother back to their home city in Japan, after a long search for their true genealogy, to unearth family connections erased by generations of cultural assimilation and language loss. McClure’s non-invasive, empathetic storytelling shows how deeply she loves her mother and honors her quest for family, heightened by the gorgeous cinematography of Nä‘älehu Anthony of ‘Ōiwi TV, who makes the mother-daughter pair’s visit to Yamaguchi prefecture look gently spiritual, even miraculous.
Finally, ‘Āina Paikai, probably the most gifted Hawaiian filmmaker of his generation, re-imagines a moment in the life of Kanaka Maoli historical hero George Helm, in “Hawaiian Soul,” a dramatic (scripted), 1970s-era biopic on how as young “hippies,” Helm and his progressive Maoli activist friends, protesting the U.S. military’s test-bombing of sacred Kaho‘olawe island, must get their skeptical elders to join them in their movement. Entering a church full of conservative Christian, yet Hawaiian-speaking, Känaka, the radical youngsters must bridge the political and generational divide to persuade the well-dressed elders of the ethics of their cause.
Got room for a laugh? Conrad Lihilihi’s raucous “The Mainland,” about a Hawaiian actor, who has moved to the continent to navigate “Haole”wood typecasting in L.A., when a super local friend from the islands shows up unannounced one day at his door, will lift you out of your COVID blues.