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November 22, 1999 2:00 AM
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FESTIVALS: Surfers, Aussies and Indies at 19th Hawaii International

FESTIVALS: Surfers, Aussies and Indies at 19th Hawaii International

by Augusta Palmer




After a week of Mai-Tais on the beach and complimentary Kona coffees, not to mention screenings of over a hundred shorts, features, and documentaries from the Pacific Rim and beyond, the Honolulu portion of the 19th Hawaii International Film Festival (HIFF) closed on Sunday November 14, two days after the winners of the Golden Maile awards were handed out at Friday's beach-side ceremony, held in Waikiki's Royal Hawaiian Hotel. Though the twelve films in competition came from nine different countries -- ranging from Poland to Korea -- it was clear that Aussies (and surfers) were the big winners at this year's HIFF.


The Golden Mailes are awarded not only on the basis of how a film passes aesthetic muster, but also according to the film's ability to promote cross-cultural understanding. "Siam Sunset," Aussie director John Polson's black comedy about the misadventures of an English chemist in the Australian outback, won the Maile for best feature, thus joining a lineage of Australian Maile winners like Scott Hicks' "Shine." Hicks' latest, "Snow Falling on Cedars," opened this year's festival. David L Brown's celebration of octogenarian surfers, "Surfing for Life" sailed away with both the Blockbuster Audience Award for best documentary and the Golden Maile for best documentary.


Though audiences agreed with the jury on best doc, they diverged with their own choice of best feature. But not to worry mates, the HIFF audience award also went to an Aussie film, "In a Savage Land," "Kiss or Kill" director Bill Bennett's story of anthropologists gone awry in 1930's New Guinea. In addition, a special jury prize was awarded to Chinese actor Jiang Wu ("Beautiful New World") for his performance as a country bumpkin turned wise by his experiences in a contemporary Shanghai riddled with deception.


Another (transplanted) Australian, cinematographer Chris Doyle ("Chungking Express," "Liberty Heights") was at the festival not only to promote his directorial debut, "Away With Words," but also to receive the fest's Eastman Kodak award for Excellence in Cinematography and to give a seminar entitled "Truth, Light, Beauty, and Beer: The Accidental Philosophy of Christopher Doyle." The irrepressible Doyle made his presence known at the otherwise formal Golden Maile Awards when he interrupted a litany of praise for his own accomplishments to claim that the entire speech had been written by his mother.


A week earlier at the opening press conference, Festival Director Christian Gaines had introduced the jury of critics, filmmakers, and actors who chose the winners: Newsweek's David Ansen, Hong Kong now Hollywood director Peter Chan ("Comrades, Almost a Love Story" and last year's Spielberg-produced "The Love Letter"), Hawaiian LA-based director Kayo Hatta ("Picture Bride"), actress Lisa Lu ("The Last Emperor," "The Joy Luck Club"), and actor Cesar Montano (star of the Philippine blockbuster "Jose Rizal"). Throughout the week, Gaines displayed a prodigious collection of Hawaiian shirts and ran the fest with a mixture of casual poise and intense enthusiasm for Pacific Rim cinema, exemplified by his introduction of director/cinematographer Chris Doyle at a screening, gamely admitting to being a "blithering fan."


When the Hawaii Film Festival was first established, its screenings were free to the public and, despite the current charge for screenings and the fest's expansion into two multiplexes in addition to the beautifully restored Hawaii Theater, there's still a strong emphasis on both pleasing and educating local audiences with a variety of seminars and post-screening Q & A sessions.


That Hawaii is still a truly audience-driven fest became evident not only through the sold-out shows of high prestige films like Chen Kaige's "The Emperor and the Assassin," and the "Once Were Warriors" sequel "What Becomes of the Broken Hearted," but also through the dedication of filmgoers. For example, lines formed of those looking to take the place of last-minute no-shows to a sold out screening of "Amerikan Passport," Reed Paget's globe-trotting documentary critique of American foreign policy (and Doc winner at the Chicago Underground Film Fest). And an impressively large audience showed up for a 9:45 AM screening of Ruby Yang's "Citizen Hong Kong," a multifaceted portrait of the year following the Hong Kong handover as seen through the eyes of five young Hong Kong residents.


The HIFF has clearly fostered knowledgeable audiences who revel in the relaxed atmosphere, which allowed actor Cary Tagawa ("Snow Falling on Cedars") both to gush unabashedly about his co-star Rick Yune and to give a critique of the film, which he hadn't seen before the opening night's sold-out screening. One wondered if Scott Hicks was cringing somewhere when he heard Tagawa's pronouncements ("It's too long...there's a little too much snow... I wanted to see more of Rick Yune's character..."), but audiences ate up his candid comments.

It's always expected that local premieres of art house blockbusters will receive warm audience response, but they also responded strongly to much more independent/controversial films shot on a shoestring. Take the sophomore effort of British-born, L.A.-based director Ash: "Pups," a gritty film conceived and shot in a matter of months, which features a great performance from now indie guru Burt Reynolds (by far the most expensive item in the film's budget of just about a million). Reynolds plays a conflicted cop trying to negotiate for the release of hostages with a disturbingly normal 13-year-old bank robber; the film received very vocal audience appreciation at one screening, despite some unfortunate projection problems.


Much of the buzz at HIFF centered on homegrown Hawaiian films (or films with Hawaiian subjects like "Surfing for Life"), festival circuit favorites that were made with the assurance of their release built-in (Ang Lee's Civil War drama, "Ride With the Devil"), or popular films with large audiences in their country of origin (like Stephen Chiau's "King of Comedy").

The HIFF doesn't function as a major market for distributors, but its saving grace is not only its location in paradise, but also the program's emphasis on cross-cultural understanding. This makes room for fascinating "smaller" films like "Paradise Bent: Boys Will Be Girls in Samoa" (a documentary on the traditional Samoan culture of male cross-dressers) or "The Lost Kingdom." The latter, a look at the hardships and triumphs of a female Taiwanese opera troupe whose performers were sold or indentured by their parents in the late 1940's and 1950's, then became stars of stage and screen, and by the 1990's were forgotten housewives.


Finally, the HIFF's end of the year timing also provides a welcome opportunity to re-evaluate films which have been negatively reviewed on the festival circuit like Chris Doyle's audaciously hallucinatory diatribe on the color blue, "Away with Words," or films which were merely drowned out by louder buzz and bigger ad campaigns like San Francisco playwright Philip Kan Gotanda's elegant epicurean neo-noir, "Life Tastes Good," which was overlooked at its Sundance premiere earlier this year.

[Augusta Palmer is a freelance film writer who also teaches film studies at New York's School of Visual Arts and is working on her Ph.D. at NYU's Department of Cinema Studies.]

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