Mission Accomplished: Hawaii International Film Festival Promotes "Cultural Understanding Through Film" for its 23rd Year
by Jonny Leahan
The Hawaii International Film Festival, presented by Louis Vuitton
Hawaii, completed its 23rd-annual event this past Sunday, screening 167
films from a record 34 countries. Held on Oahu from October 30 - November 9,
the festival has become known as an important gateway for films from both
the East and the West. Providing a refreshing break from the
celebrity-driven madness that often dominates other film festivals, HIFF has
the distinct advantage of being held in a relaxing tropical setting that
offsets much of the frenzy often associated with these types of events.
The opening night provided a hint that things would be different in
Honolulu, as festivalgoers filed into the historic Hawaii Theater,
which was recently restored to its former gilded opulence. After being
treated to a performance of musical standards on a vintage organ, the
audience was asked to close their eyes for a traditional Hawaiian blessing.
Following a moment of silence, indigenous chants were sung, designed to
clear the mind and bless the festivities to follow.
The blessing seemed to work as record crowds attended this year's
festival, which boasted 12 world premieres and 31 U.S. premieres. "When we
started out 23 years ago at the East West Center here in Honolulu,"
executive director Chuck Boller told indieWIRE, "our mission was to
promote and increase cultural understanding between the peoples of the East
and the West through film. That's why we focus on Asia, the Pacific, and
North America. I definitely think that mission was accomplished."
The festival kicked off with "The Company," Robert Altman's latest
directorial effort making the festival rounds, to a packed house of about
1,200 people. A subtle look into the world of a fictional Chicago dance
troupe based on the Joffrey Ballet, Altman employs his trademark blurring of
narrative and documentary filmmaking by using real dancers from the company
combined with actors like Neve Campbell, who masterfully performs her
own moves. As is so often the case, Malcolm McDowell steals the show,
this time with his biting portrayal of Alberto Antonelli, the troupe's
eccentric founder and artistic director.
The Centerpiece Gala film was the Australian-produced "Japanese
Story," directed by Sue Brooks, starring Toni Collette and
newcomer Gotaro Tsunshima, slated for a December release in the U.S.
Perfectly fitting with the theme of the festival, the film tells the tragic
East-meets-West story of a spoiled Japanese businessman and a stubborn
Australian geologist, played to heartbreaking perfection by Collette, who
for the past decade has demonstrated astonishing versatility in films like
"Muriel's Wedding," "Velvet Goldmine," and "About a Boy."
Brooks directs "Japanese Story" with a quiet deliberation not often found in
today's quick-cut world, giving the characters time to unfold as if they
were in a novel instead of on screen.
Another film that marries East and West, albeit in a very different way,
is the documentary "Be Good, Smile Pretty," directed by Tracy
Tragos. Tragos lost her father, a Navy Commander in the Vietnam War,
while she was still an infant. Having met him only once while he was on
leave in Hawaii, the director attempts to discover the father she never knew
through discussions with family members and with people who fought next to
him on the waterways of the Mekong Delta. What at first may seem to be an
exercise in filmmaking-as-therapy turns into a moving metaphor on grief and
loss that becomes especially relevant given the daily casualties in the
ongoing Iraqi-American War.
Perhaps the most successful screening, at least in terms of media
attention and sheer numbers, was the world premiere of "The Ride,"
written and directed by Nathan Kurosawa. In a free public event, with
the cast and crew present, the film was screened on Waikiki Beach at sunset
to a record crowd of nearly 15,000 people. "The Ride," a G-rated surfer
movie which takes place in 1911, was entirely shot in Hawaii using
exclusively local talent.
"The people we reached through that screening were not necessarily the
traditional film festival audience, which is amazing when you think about
it," says Boller. "I think that kind of event was great for us. Our Hawaii
Filmmaker section was particularly strong this year, and every one of the
films in there was very well done. Because of the talent here, and of course
the technology, almost anyone can be a filmmaker now."
First time directors Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK proved
that point with their feature "Flavors." With a very limited budget
they managed to create a truly unique comedy that weaves several storylines
together, following the lives of interconnected Indo-Americans on both
coasts. In the spirit of "Hollywood/Bollywood" and "The Joy Luck
Club," the directors provide a satirical yet revealing glimpse into a
culture most Americans know very little about.
There was also a healthy dose of shorts programming at HIFF, including
Doan La's "Dragon of Love," which won the Blockbuster Video audience
award for best short film. The 11-minute short had the audience laughing
through much of the screening, to the delight of the filmmaker. "The
screening was actually incredible and it's always good to show your film,
especially a comedy, to a big crowd of people because it just plays
differently," La told indieWIRE. "The energy that comes alive and feeds
itself...I found myself kind of lost in the film as well."
The Audience Award for Best Feature went to "The Ride", while the
audience award for best documentary went to "They Call Her Ladyfingers:
The Betty Loo Taylor Story," directed by Patricia Gillespie. The
First Hawaiian Bank Golden Maile award went to "The Twilight Samurai"
for the best feature film, directed by Yoji Yamada, and the Golden
Maile for best documentary went to "Refugee," directed by Spencer
This year's jury also honored filmmaker Tsai Ming-Liang's feature
film "Goodbye Dragon Inn," while The Cades Schutte Film &
Videomaker award went to "The Ride." In a special presentation, the Eastman
Kodak Award for excellence in cinematography was presented to Dean
Semler ("Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior," "Dances With Wolves") for
his major contribution to contemporary cinema. The ceremony also honored
James McArthur (Dan-o) of "Hawaii Five-0" with the Film in
Hawaii award for all he has contributed in promoting Hawaii and the local
Like any good festival, HIFF also boasted a few impressive parties.
Perhaps the most notable of these was the reception at the Governor's
Mansion, complete with Hawaiian musicians performing traditional songs, and
endless amounts of sushi. The historic location provided an interesting
backdrop, as the home was the very same where Queen Lili'uokalani,
the last Hawaiian monarch, spent her final days as the U.S. annexed
All in all, HIFF 2003 made quite a splash, and the painstaking community
outreach combined with excellent advance PR seemed to pay off in spades.
"This was by far our most successful film festival ever in our history,"
says Boller. "We just want to keep it strong like it was. We want to
replicate what we did, but expand in ways, particularly with outreach...to
the non-traditional festival audiences. I still think if there were more
cultural understanding in general, there wouldn't be the kind of problems
that are happening in the world."