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Hawaii Film Festival, Part One: ‘Shanghai Calling’ Breakout Daniel Henney, Music Movie ‘The Sapphires,’ Doc ‘Call Me Kuchu’

Hawaii Film Festival, Part One: 'Shanghai Calling' Breakout Daniel Henney, Music Movie 'The Sapphires,' Doc 'Call Me Kuchu'

It’s a challenge to cover the Hawaii International Film Festival’s 32nd year of cinema in paradise if you adore sand and surf as well as dark movie theaters. As I write poolside at the luxurious Halekulani Hotel, I’m covering a mere smattering of the 219 films screened at the festival this year (October 11-21), from “Silver Linings Playbook” to Korean fest closer “The Thieves,” making its U.S. premiere. Finally, this Asian-flavored festival is targeted at locals who can take full advantage of the smorgasbord of global cinema.

My first four films shared an expatriate theme. Opening night crowdpleaser “The Sapphires” tells the true 1968 story of four aboriginal singers who travel from Australia to Vietnam to entertain the troops. The Weinstein Co. Cannes entry stars rough and tumble charmer Chris O’Dowd and a quartet of gifted Australian actress-singers, Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Shari Sebbens and Miranda Tapsell.

Rookie Daniel Hsia’s delightful romantic comedy “Shanghai Calling” stars heartthrob Daniel Henney (“X-Men: First Class”), who boasts a large Hawaiian and Korean fan base. He plays an American-born Chinese lawyer who reluctantly goes to Shanghai to secure making partner at his NYC law firm, but ends up learning much about himself and his culture. Henney won Best Actor at both the Newport and Shanghai Film Festivals.

At the opening night reception, Hsia said that a distribution deal is nearly in place the for film, a US-China co-production co-starring Eliza Coupe, Zhu Zhu and Bill Paxton, who had a posse of Chinese friends by the end of the thirty day shoot; he didn’t want to leave. “He’s the kind of guy who makes friends with everybody,” Hsia said at the Q & A. The director told the audience — if they hadn’t already been to Shanghai — to consider this their first trip to the world’s largest city.

Two documentaries with threads of ex-pat and displacement themes include Fatih Akin’s Cannes selection “Polluting Paradise,” which is set in his grandparent’s village in the Black Sea town of Camburnu, Turkey, where the government does nothing to protect locals from an illegally built dump that is far too close to residential areas, and leaks effluent into the surrounding soil and sea. It’s a devastating story of blatant carelessness towards the environment, and a fascinating (and unflattering) look at how debilitating the effect of private interest can be on governing officials.

Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall’s “Call Me Kuchu,” which won the Teddy for Best Documentary and the Cinema Fairbindet Prize at Berlin, looks at the fight against Uganda’s state-sanctioned homophobia. At the center of the story is David Kato, the brave and good-humored spirit who was murdered after he had successfully won a major case to stop a local newspaper from condemning, accusing and endangering the LGBTI community. Kato was the first publicly gay person in Uganda.

Early in the film he speaks about his experience in South Africa, where he was first exposed to openly gay communities and was able to be himself. Rather than stay in this safe environment, he made it his mission to return to Uganda and set the gay community free from the dominating homophobia. The directors began shooting long before Kato was killed, and were there to witness the immediate and subsequent aftermath of his death, when the international community condemned Uganda for their violation of human rights.

Check out trailers for these films below.

Stay tuned for Part Two.

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