The Hawaii International Film Festival Provides a Cultural Gateway from East to West for a 24th Year
by John Leahan
The Louis Vuitton Hawaii International Film Festival wrapped on October 31st after 11 days of panels, seminars, parties, and screenings of 168 films from 24 countries. In the festival’s 24th year, organizers enjoyed record ticket sales, an unprecedented number of sold out screenings, and increased visibility internationally. “We have always had directors, producers, and actors who are well known in their own countries,” said the festival’s executive director Chuck Boller. “We bring them in for their talent, not necessarily their fame. This year, Maggie Cheung and David Wenham as actors, and Emanuel Levy as noted film critic, raised our profile, as they are significant names in the West as well as the East.”
That kind of international appeal has always served the festival well, and the geography of Hawaii as a gateway from East to West has only facilitated its goal of cultural understanding though film. “I am told that we were the first American film festival to focus exclusively upon Asian cinema,” said Boller, “and while other wonderful festivals in the US certainly have long had their Asian sections, our overall focus has been upon Asia and the Pacific Rim. We have long supported and encouraged cultural understanding and interchange between the East and the West through film. LVHIFF highlights films from Asia and helps create their initial presence in the US and, hopefully, throughout the world.”
In that multicultural spirit, it’s fitting that the festival opened with the US premiere of “Clean,” an international co-production in English, French and Cantonese all spoken fluently by the film’s magnetic star Maggie Cheung, in a performance that earned her a Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festival. Directed by Olivier Assayas, the film follows Emily Wang (Cheung) as an irresponsible woman who is hopelessly devoted to her rocker husband Lee (James Johnston), but is distracted by her own dreams and demons. In her attempt to become “clean,” we follow Emily from around the world in her quest to discover where she belongs.
The animated Japanese film “Steamboy” saw its long-awaited North American Premiere at the fest, after nearly two decades and $20 million in the making. Directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, who brought us the visually stunning “Akira,” “Steamboy” takes place in 19th century London, following a young inventor named Ray who receives a secret key to a force of massive power. A classic good versus evil adventure story, Otomo does not disappoint with this truly creative and engaging feature.
In the documentary section, one of the more notable films was Catriona McKenzie‘s “Mr. Patterns,” which won the festival’s Golden Maile Award for Best Documentary. In English, and Aboriginal languages Luritju, and Warlpili, this fascinating film captures the forming of an art movement in the Australian outback, the empowerment as the artists become known, and the personal destruction that ensues. Making use of precious archival footage shot by the filmmaker himself, McKenzie manages to portray the delicate balance between art, politics and culture, bringing it to a personal and sometimes tragic level.
Stand out documentaries in the Western Showcase section were Amanda Micheli‘s “Double Dare” and Robert Stone‘s “Guerilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst.” In the skillful “Double Dare,” we get a behind-the-scenes look at the lives of two extraordinary stuntwomen, Jeannie Epper and Zoe Bell, as they fight evil villains and jump off buildings. But it’s not all fun and games, as the film explores the hardship of the work itself, as well as the ageism and sexism in Hollywood that even superheroes can have difficulty overcoming.
In “Guerilla,” a story we thought we all knew is retold with a fresh perspective that only time can provide, and this may well be the definitive Patty Hearst documentary. In the 70’s, the story of the Symbionese Liberation Army and their kidnapping (and subsequent conversion) of heiress Patty Hearst gripped the nation and the world. In some ways, the saga gave birth to the cultural twins of domestic terrorism and a media obsessed with crime, and America hasn’t been the same since. The most compelling aspect of “Guerilla” is the generous use of rare archival footage discovered in a warehouse, abandoned after the networks switched from film to video.
In the Shanghai on Screen section, Feng Qiao‘s “Sentimental Remembrances of the Lute” struck a chord with festivalgoers. The Mandarin-language film deals with a controversial subject in Mainland China a daughter being raised by a gay couple. During the Cultural Revolution, the young men fell in love, and adopted an abandoned baby. Years later, the men returned to their home village as their daughter prepares for college, and her friends become curious. Shot on Betacam SP, this film provides a rare glimpse into invisible part of Chinese society, where love ultimately prevails despite cultural and political oppression.
One of the more important sections in the festival was the Hawaii Panorama program, which offered the largest selection of Hawaii-based films of any festival some 35 narrative features, documentaries, and shorts from local filmmakers. Although Hawaii has a long history of film production on the islands, there is a burgeoning indie film community made up of filmmakers who aren’t always interested in using the gorgeous locale as the main character in their movies.
Take for instance Lon Takiguchi‘s outrageous film “Public Access: Episode 04 of 05,” an over-the-top low-budget feature about two downtrodden losers who decide to make a movie to break out of their pathetic existence. The sex, violence, and cannibalism that make any midnight movie fun are here in abundance, causing the festival to add a Halloween screening to accommodate the demand. Takiguchi and his crew certainly enjoyed their moment in the spotlight as homespun filmmakers, and seem determined to keep working locally.
“The local community and the city and state officials are committed to creating a positive environment for production in Hawaii,” Takiguchi told indieWIRE. “Besides that, Hawaii is such a beautiful location. No matter how stressful the production, the fact that you’re in Hawaii is definitely a stress relief. The people here bring passion and support to the table. Whether it was a team member’s first time on a set or they were seasoned pros, my crew was behind me a hundred percent.”
Hawaiian filmmaker Jennifer Akana-Sturla agrees. “There are a million untold stories here,” she told indieWIRE, “a million ways to depict the islands themselves as characters, and the independent film production community is growing and growing. It was quite difficult for us to find crew and discounts, compared to LA for example, but in return we got Hawaii plus you don’t have to permit nearly as extensively here.”
Akana-Sturla’s 25-minute film, which had its world premiere at the fest, won the Blockbuster Video Audience Award for Best Short. Shot on 35mm, “Kamea” is a coming-of-age story about a girl living on the North Shore who finds direction from the spirit of Duke Kahanamoku. “Everyone was so enthusiastic about the film,” said Akana-Sturla, “in large part I’m sure because we shot locally. It’s a very Hawaiian film. People here love their home more than any place I’ve ever been they know how special it is, and filmmakers here want to capture both the beauty of the land and the truly unique and diverse people here.”
Other audience award winners were Jonathan Teplitzky‘s “Gettin’ Square,” which won Best Feature, and Kaliko Palmiera‘s “Steve Ma’i’i,” which took home Best Documentary. Other Golden Maile Awards went to Ishii Katsuhito‘s “Taste of Tea” for Best Feature, and a Special Jury Award was given to Lee Hosup‘s “And Thereafter.” The Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema (NETPAC) Award went to Kim Hak-soon‘s “Rewind,” with a NETPAC special mention award going to Tsuchiya Yutaka‘s “Peep ‘TV’ Show.”
The Cades Schutte and the Cades Foundation Hawaii Film & Videomaker Award was given to James Sereno‘s “Silent Years,” while the Eastman Kodak Award for Excellence in Cinematography went to Allen Daviau (“E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial,” “The Color Purple”). The Film in Hawaii Award was presented to Brian Keaulana and the men of Hawaiian Water Patrol, while Maggie Cheung was honored with the inaugural LVHIFF Award for Achievement in Acting.
Next year, the festival will turn 25, and they have big plans to mark the milestone. “We’ll have retrospectives and workshops with some of our biggest films and most significant filmmakers and talent,” said Boller. “We’ll have a salute to Chinese cinema on its 100th anniversary, as well as a special tribute to Hawaii-based films. There will also be a retrospective tribute to the ethnic theaters of old Honolulu. LVHIFF has come of age in people’s minds.” And at the quarter century mark, the crowds will likely continue to grow, solidifying this festival’s place as the cinematic gateway from the East to the West, and everywhere in between.