Picture Paradise: 17th Annual Hawaii International Film Festival
by Adam Pincus
With the lure of its tropical clime and film slate of Pacific Rim exotica,
the Hawaii International Film Festival is uniquely positioned among North
American festivals to promote filmmaking rarely seen in this country to an
audience conditioned to embrace it.
After fifteen years in the hands of its founder Jeannette Paulson, the
festival was taken over in 1996 by Christian Gaines, a former Sundance Film
Festival programmer (1994-96) who served as HIFF's film coordinator from
1990-93. Mr. Gaines' return to the organization presents a prime
opportunity to re-envision an event that has been enormously successful in
some regards, but is in need of both financial and aesthetic renewal.
The timing could not be better. HIFF faces dwindling government support: by
the year 2000 it will receive no federal funding, and must now begin to
aggressively cultivate the private sector, corporate sponsorship, its film
society, and the audience at large. HIFF is unusual among festivals in
that, until this year, admission was free to the public. One result of this
policy is the large and loyal local audience, one that this year was
evidenced in sold out screenings of everything from "Shanghai Triad" director
Zhang Yimou's latest, "Keep Cool", to "Deep River" - a Japanese film set in
India and winner of the festival's audience award. But when films were
free, says Gaines, "it was hard to know who was there for the comfy seats
and air conditioning." The decision to charge admission was as much a
gamble geared to identify the true core audience, those for whom a ticket
price represented the value of the films. "It worked," says the director.
"We had excellent ticket sales this year."
At the same time, Mr. Gaines' influence can be felt in everything under the
vague rubric "look and feel." As he grapples with the new financial
realities and attempts to transform HIFF into a self-sustaining entity, the
director courts the same demographic sought so hungrily by the movie
business at large, the younger set with time for movies and the cash to
spend on them. Everything from the arresting poster image of a young Asian
woman in a wet-suit emerging from a washing machine, to its current slogan,
"Better Living Through Celluloid," to the poppy, smart series of trailers,
suggest this transformation. "One of the things I really enjoyed doing was
contemporizing the festival," said Gaines.
Yet HIFF remains a festival committed to the propagation of Pan-Asian
cinema -- and the programming slate, while reflective of the new era, holds
its center. Opening night presented a screening of Ang Lee's "The Ice Storm",
a film that's well-traveled on the festival circuit, but one that resonates
particularly well for HIFF. Born in Taiwan and educated in the United
States, Lee in many ways epitomizes the agenda here, the cross-pollination
of East/West culture; he is the subject of a retrospective at the festival,
and the recipient of The Vision in Film Award, presented for only the third
time in HIFF's 17-year history. Asian-American Arthur Dong, whose "Licensed To Kill" took top doc and Filmmakers' Trophy at last year's Sundance Film
Festival, was the subject of another screening series. Roger Ebert -- who
has attended HIFF for the last thirteen years -- presented a shot-by-shot
analysis of Akira Kurosawa's "Ikiru" at an informal seminar.
Cross-culturalism is further borne out in the festival's jury, chaired by
local novelist, screen and travel writer Paul Theroux, and comprised of
Australian actress Toni Colette ("Muriel's Wedding", "Emma"), Kim Dong-ho, the
director of Korea's Pusan Film Festival, Malti Sahai, India's Director of
the Directorate of Film Festivals, and critic Peter Rainer from Los Angeles
New Times. The jury is charged with the consideration of 10 films in two
categories (Dramatic and Documentary) for the Golden Maile, a prize awarded
to films that best promote cultural understanding. And this jury has much
to understand; among the dramatic features are "Kiss Or Kill", Australian
director Bill Bennett's stylish take on neo-noir, "My Secret Cache", a
broadly comic Japanese film, "The Long Journey", a Vietnamese film that
grapples with the legacy of the war, and "Hacks", a knowing parody of TV
writers in Los Angeles. It is a broad swath of filmmaking, one that makes
plain the cultural chasm that HIFF is attempting to bridge. The jury
eventually awarded the prize to "12 Stories", an elliptical tableau of life
in the government high rises of contemporary Singapore. Quiet desperation,
it appears, is universal.
Screening facilities at the festival are spread out across Honolulu, but
the majority of films show at the HIFF's signature venue, the
newly-renovated Hawaii Theater, a 1600 seat gilded movie palace adjacent to
one of the most interesting -- and interestingly under-developed --
neighborhoods of Honolulu. The contrast to Waikiki, with its panoply of
tourist malls, designer clothing outlets and hotel towers, could not be
greater. Two blocks from the Hawaii Theater, old man bars, greasy noodles
shops and peep shows scatter the narrow streets. Mingled among them are the
occasional gallery, a chic eatery. Gaines suggests that his plans for the
festival include a theater and new headquarters, and this neighborhood, so
ripe for renewal, seems like the ideal place for it.
HIFF is unique in that it is the only state-wide festival in the country.
After the awards ceremony in Honolulu, the films travel to the neighboring
islands, Maui, Kauai, the Big Island, places so oppressively picturesque
it's hard to imagine spending an afternoon in the dark, no matter how much
cultural understanding is at stake.
[Adam Pincus is the producer of SundanceChannel.com for Viacom Interactive
Services @ www.sundancechannel.com]