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FESTIVALS: Mai Tai’s, Movies and New Growing Pains; 21st Hawaii International

FESTIVALS: Mai Tai's, Movies and New Growing Pains; 21st Hawaii International

FESTIVALS: Mai Tai's, Movies and New Growing Pains; 21st Hawaii International

by Dave Ratzlow

(indieWIRE/ 11.16.01) — I’m lounging on a white sand beach in Honolulu, sipping a pina colada with a perfect view of a turquoise sea framed by volcanic mountains when my watch alarm goes off. An afternoon screening awaits around the corner at the 21st Hawaii International Film Festival (Nov. 2 – 11). It’s nearly impossible to pull myself away from such comfort, but duty calls.

Traditionally known as the Asian film industry’s gateway to the West, this year’s festival had a lot of obstacles to overcome. In addition to post-9/11 chaos, which delayed some prints and prompted many delegates to stay home, the festival had to overcome some bad press following the sudden departure two years ago of former Executive Director Christian Gaines who went on to run the AFI Film Festival in L.A.

Indeed, HIFF seemed to be experiencing some growing pains. (Lack of press screenings and inadequate transportation between venues being two complaints.) But for the most part, current Executive Director Chuck Boller and his staff of amiable and dedicated young film buffs pulled it off, showing a record 170 films to enthusiastic audiences during the nine day festival. And luckily, it rained a few times, making it easier for weary journalists to attend screenings.

Any film festival coverage inherently calls for some kind of tourist report and that’s probably more true here than with other festival destinations. With nearly 90% of the state’s hotel rooms, Waikiki is tourist central where polite Japanese and fat Americans come to eat, shop and tan. Hyper-commercialism defines the area overpopulated with Hawaiian shirt vendors, every fast food joint you can think of and shops like Magneato, America’s #1 refrigerator magnet store.

Nine films came from China. One of the better selections was Ning Ying‘s “I Love Beijing” recalls the films of the French New Wave and the American 1970s with its portrait of a tough Beijing taxi driver tiring of his playboy lifestyle. At 97 minutes, it feels a bit short, but it still evokes a haunting mood, expressing a vague spiritual emptiness and sense of longing through brief montages of the city and its citizens.

Japan offered up 13 features including “Firefly Dreams,” directed by Welsh ex-pat John Williams who took home the festival’s main award, The Golden Maile. I can see why the jury enjoyed this coming-of-age story infused with generation-gap tensions, but watching a slowly paced 100-minute film about a sullen teenager developing a relationship with a wise old lady is not my cup of green tea.

From New Zealand came Sam Pillsbury‘s “Crooked Earth,” a dramatization of the Maori nationalist movement, which rattled that country in the 1980s. Lawrence Makoare plays a fiery revolutionary hell-bent on reclaiming land “stolen by the white man.” Temura Morrison (“Once Were Warriors“), who presented the film and starred in at least three of the New Zealand selections, plays his more level-headed brother. Though great acting and beautiful scenery, the film’s politics get in the way of the drama and the filmmakers never figure out how to parse all the complicated issues.

During the Q&A that followed, a local history teacher, Lani Waiau, wondered what kind of message the filmmakers hoped to bestow upon Hawaiians with such a film. Morrison, who has achieved somewhat of an iconic status here since his performance in “Warriors,” skirted the question and instead charmed festival audiences with a traditional Maori love song. Waiau assured me, though, that a nationalist movement among ethnic Hawaiians was gaining momentum and slowly finding its voice with the help of cheap video production.

As much as they are an intrinsic part of Asian Cinema (and probably big money makers for the festival too), HIFF certainly needs to cut down on the number of dumb action movies which nudged out more deserving films from prime screening times and locations. Even the filmmakers seemed to recognize the injustice. The representatives of Benny Chan‘s “Gen-Y Cops,” for example, openly expressed doubt that the audience could even stay awake. Let’s hope Paul Rudd, who plays a dedicated FBI agent hunting down a stolen police robot, took home a healthy chunk of change for this clunker.

But bad action pics are as much a part of the culture here as hula and mai tai’s as proven by winner of the Aloha Airlines Hawaii Film and Videomaker Award, Aaron Yamasato, director of “Blood of the Samurai.” Intentionally cheesy (and low on plot), his action flick, while not any better or worse than the others, at least keeps hold of its youthful enthusiasm and good cheer. Featuring professional fight choreography by Leroy Bartlette, this film proves how much can be done with a DV camera, $1000 and a dream.

American films included George Butler‘s documentary Golden Maile winner “The Endurance,” Joel Hopkins‘ “Jump Tomorrow,” Greg Yaitanes‘ “Plan B” and “Teddy Bear’s Picnic” directed by “Spinal Tap” alum, Harry Shearer. In an attempt to carry on the torch lit by Rob Reiner and Christopher Guest, Shearer’s farce pokes fun at a group of rich and powerful men who meet at an exclusive retreat to act like frat boys. There are a lot of funny bits (especially a dance number featuring George Wendt in drag) but just not enough to fill its 80-minute running time. But check out the Shearer-penned soundtrack if it ever comes out.

One diamond in the rough came from Hawaiian-born actor-turned-filmmaker, Scott Coffey. His DV series “Ellie Parker” stars Naomi Watts as a struggling (and slowing-going insane) Aussie actress adjusting to life in La La Land. Despite some minor sound problems and glitches, the movie offers further evidence of Watts’ superb dexterity and talent after her star-making performance in David Lynch‘s “Mulholland Drive.” Coffey does a fine job as well as the nice-guy-finishes-last klutz trying to win her heart. Too bad his movie was relegated to the lower profile Hawaii Convention Center where all video screenings were held.

There were, in fact quite a few well-shot digital video features transferred to film that made it to the main screen in Waikiki. Among the best of them was Cannes Camera d’Or winner, “The Fast Runner,” Zarcharias Kunuk‘s three-hour drama about life among an Inuit tribe in the arctic tundra. With adultery, patricide and forbidden love, the film, supposedly the first in the Inuit language, has a familiar Shakespearean grandeur to it while at the same time showing audiences something they’ve never seen before.

Given its reputation as a warm and hospitable town, it’s a shame that the festival didn’t host more parties, especially since opportunities to meet other delegates were brief and few. Chuck Boller blamed a slumping economy for the shortfall, especially in the restaurant industry, which has sponsored parties in the past. On Wednesday night, though, Governor Cayetano hosted a brief party at his mansion where filmmakers and festival VIPs tossed back a few in the flower-fresh courtyard. Unfortunately, guests missed the pleasure of the governor’s company. He was in New York City promoting state tourism by offering free Hawaiian vacations to New York’s bravest.

One of the major highlights of the festival oddly enough occurred during the awards ceremony. Usually pretty dull occasions, this one, held at the opulent pink-painted Royal Hawaiian Hotel, featured three electrifying performances by local ukulele player Jake Shimabukuro. His music also underscored the never tiresome HIFF trailer, which preceded each screening throughout the week. Playing with Hendrix-like virtuosity, Shimabukuro mesmerized the crowd between awards. He could easily have a career in soundtrack work if he wanted it.

During the last three days of the festival, several films were also screened on neighboring islands. HIFF was kind enough to fly me to Kauai to witness the homecoming of Hawaiian-raised director David Cunningham, who brought his Kauai-shot feature “To End All Wars.”

After several days in Waikiki, coming to Kauai is like emerging from a long crowded subway ride into the Garden of Eden. The landscape is so stunning, the air so intoxicatingly fresh, that several times I nearly sent my rental car off a cliff for lack of paying attention to the road.

Unfortunately, “To End All Wars” doesn’t take as much advantage of this landscape as “Jurassic Park” did. With gut wrenching intensity, the film follows a group of Allied POWs who were forced to build the Thailand-Burma railroad as slave laborers for the Japanese. But only Robert Carlyle and Kurosawa veteran Sakae Kimura look like they belong in the film and I could have done without the room-pa-pa music and the cliché platitudes (“When a man looses hope, that’s when he dies!).

Standing before a panoramic view of the Wimea Canyon the next day, I couldn’t help but think how much I’d rather watch the sunset than see the festival’s films. In fact, as the sun went down, turning the clouds peach and pink, as the breeze carried a vague flowery scent, I didn’t care if I never saw another movie ever again. Or, at least, until the next rainy day.

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