DISPATCH FROM HAWAII: With a Spotlight on Asia, Hawaii Int’l Fest Shines

DISPATCH FROM HAWAII: With a Spotlight on Asia, Hawaii Int'l Fest Shines

Film festivals are like weddings: at any given time, there’s one going on somewhere in the world. It’s pretty safe to say, however, that there really is no festival on the circuit quite like the Louis Vuitton Hawaii International Film Festival. In part that’s because well, it’s Hawaii, complete with sunset screenings on the beach and tiki-torch lined streets. What’s more, Hawaii’s unique geography gives this regional fest a distinct international flair. Now in its 26th year, the LVHIFF wrapped Sunday after ten days of screening 254 films from 47 countries, with more than 70,000 people attending.

“Every year we expand a bit more,” Chuck Boller, the fest’s executive director, told indieWIRE. The fest has come quite a ways since its humble beginnings as a mostly scholarly collaboration with the East-West Center in 1981. Over the years, it has become the premiere showcase for Pacific Rim filmmakers, and promises to occupy an important place in global cinema in the coming years: With all eyes on China and its increasing impact on the world economy, LVHIFF’s new partnerships with the Shanghai Film School and the Shanghai Media Group give it unprecedented access to the Chinese film industry–and a first look at its emerging filmmakers.

“Asian cinema has largely been under-appreciated by Hollywood–until now,” said Boller. One facet of Asian cinema that has garnered a great deal of Hollywood attention in recent years is the horror genre. Extreme Asia, one of the fest’s most popular programs, offered a rich variety of thriller-and-killer movies from South Korea (“APT,” centerpiece film “The Host,”), The Philippines (“The Inheritance“), and Japan (“Nightmare Detective“) With any luck, these films will find U.S. distributors, rather than getting remade for American audiences.

“Our heart and soul is always Asia,” continued Boller, “but we truly are an international festival.” LVHIFF’s recent certification by the Hollywood Foreign Press certainly validates that: it is an official stomping ground for critics searching for the next Golden Globe nominees. And while the fest has proven to be a place for discovering younger directors, LVHIFF also brought veteran circuit faves from around the globe like Pedro Almodovar‘s “Volver” and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu‘s “Babel” to its screens.

Ken Watanabe, winner of achievement in acting award at the Hawaii International Film Festival. Photo by Sascha Paladino

In many ways, festival honoree Ken Watanabe personifies this global sensibility. The acclaimed Japanese actor has been a superstar in the Pacific Rim for years (“His films sell out in twenty minutes here,” quipped Boller), but after his turn in “The Last Samurai” and his role in the forthcoming “Letters for Iwo Jima,” Watanabe is poised to cross over to Western audiences.

The inherent multiculturalism of Hawaii itself is part of the appeal for many filmmakers (the tropical paradise backdrop doesn’t hurt, either). As Nia Dinata, whose film “Love For Share” won the Golden Orchid for Best Feature, said, “The audiences here are very critical–in the best way. They asked very detailed questions.”

While the Hawaiian audiences have always been receptive to films from around the world, they take special pride in both homegrown filmmakers and films celebrating their culture. It’s no surprise then, that Lisette Marie Flanary‘s doc “Na Kamalei: Men of Hula” was a crowd-pleaser. The moving film features Robert Cazimero and Hawaii’s only all-male hula academy. The fest hosted its world premiere with a free public screening on the beach at sunset, along with a performance by some of the male dancers. Flanary, who grew up spending summers in Hawaii, said, “it was amazing to bring this film home.”

The fest included other homecomings: L.A.-based Jacqueline Kim, who first came to the fest in 2003 as an actor in the film “Charlotte Sometimes,” attended LVHIFF this year with her directorial debut, the short “Present.” Local boy Eric Byler, director of “Charlotte Sometimes,” returned for a third time with his latest feature, “Americanese.” To a packed theater, he shared the news that the film had been acquired by IFC Films days before.

Writer director Kevin Smith with Golden Orchid winner for Best Feature Nia Dinata and LVHIFF programmer Christian Razukas. Photo by Sascha Paladino

In addition to the warm community reception, LVHIFF provided a supportive networking environment for Asian and Asian-American filmmakers to discuss the challenges they face in the industry, which aren’t always mired in identity and ethnicity issues: Dinata, discovered by programmer Christian Razukas at Tribeca, is part of a new generation of filmmaking talent in Indonesia after the fall of the Suharto dictatorship. “From 1988-2000, the film industry there was dead. The first two films made in 2000 were produced by women,” said Dinata, whose day job is making TV commercials. While many hurdles remain for the filmmakers–among them the monopolization of theatres and having to self-distribute, she says, “the Indonesian people are ready.”

Filmmakers and producers also had many opportunities to mingle with jurors including SXSW‘s Matt Dentler, actor Kal Penn, journalist Elvis Mitchell, and Chris Albrecht of Atom Films.

In an unusual convergence of the big and small screen, LVHIFF recognized the hit TV show “Lost” (filmed on Oahu) for elevating Hawaii’s profile in Hollywood and for its commitment to the local film industry. The fest hosted a panel with “Lost” cast and crew; the show’s exec producer, Jack Bender, in fact, directed the festival’s official trailer.

The always-irreverent Kevin Smith, who had the Mai-Tai-lubricated crowd in stitches, rounded out the celeb quotient. At the awards ceremony, Smith was presented with the festival’s Maverick Award. (Leave it to Smith to find the inner phallus in the framed koa paddle he was given.)

And let’s face it: no festival would be complete without its parties. LVHIFF doesn’t disappoint. Its signature swank events included a reception at the governor’s mansion and an awards ceremony at Waikiki’s “pink palace of the Pacific”–aka the Royal Hawaiian– which began with cocktails on the oceanfront lawn and sunset views, while its unofficial events included late-night karaoke with programmer Anderson Le. As filmmaker Victor Muh (“Adrenaline Hunters: The Movie“) put it: “What’s not to like?”

This year’s winners were:

Halekulani Golden Orchid for Best Feature Film
Love For Share” (director Nia Dinata, Indonesia)

Halekulani Golden Orchid for Best Documentary
Time and Tide” (directors Julie Bayer and Josh Salzman, Tuvalu, USA)

Special jury award
Sharkwater” (director Rob Stewart, Canada)

Film in Hawaii Award

Network for Promotion of Asian Cinema (NETPAC) Award
4:30″ (director Royston Tan, Singapore)

Eastman Kodak Award for Achievement in Cinematography
Matthew Libatique

Maverick Award
Kevin Smith

Achievement in Acting
Ken Watanabe

Vision in Film Award
The Hollywood Foreign Press Association

Hawaii Film and Videomaker Award
Na Kamalei: Men of Hula” (directed by Lisette Marie Flanary)

Special jury award
“DAO” (directed by Jay Hubert)

Honolulu Magazine Award for Best Short
Majidee” (Malaysia)

Cause and F(X) Dream Digital Award
Sunday Wind” (directed by Michael Wurth, Hawaii)

DHL Audience Choice Award for Best Feature
“The Host” (directed by Bong Joon-ho, South Korea)

DHL Audience Choice Award for Best Documentary
“Na Kamalei: Men of Hula” (directed by Lisette Marie Flanary)

DHL Audience Choice Award for Best Short Film
Ruckus!” (directed by Dean Ishida, Hawaii)

ABOUT THE WRITER: Erin Torneo is a writer based in Los Angeles.

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