Festival Wrap: the 2015 Hawaii International Film Festival Hits Close to Home

Warm rain, big vine-laden trees, masses of clouds, dampness everywhere: Landing in Honolulu, on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, reminded me instantly of Singapore, where I grew up.

Even the sprawling Royal Hawaiian Center mall in the heart of Waikiki, with its stream of flip-flopped shoppers toting Hermès and Coach, felt of a kind with Singapore’s Orchard Road. And yet hallmarks of America abounded, to insist upon where I really was: Denny’s, Urban Outfitters, the Cheesecake Factory.

That strange blend of touchpoints slipped me into a sense of immediate ease in Honolulu. Everyone else had caught it as well—families, retired couples, veterans and active duty personnel, surfers with bleached hair and board shorts. Accents mingled and were understood. Everyone seemed to know their way around Waikiki’s lustrous sandy streets. Hawaiian print united all walks of life as a religion.

I was in the state capital for the Hawaii International Film Festival. The perverseness of the situation hit hard, I’ll admit. Faced with glittering beaches, dreamy, enveloping greenery, and the prospect of an endless array of seafood, I had an ungrateful thought: “I’m going spend the next week holed up in a theater?”

The glistening Waikiki shoreline

The busy Waikiki shoreline

I soon discovered that there was no need to worry: The 11-day HIFF was a distinctly languorous festival. Screenings started in the late afternoon on most days—at primary theater venue the Dole Cannery, a multiplex located in the industrial outskirts of Honolulu’s Chinatown—and guests enjoyed their R&R in the mornings (and nights). After an initial period of settling in (read: slowing down), it hardly mattered that it was my first time there. The festival had an intimacy that belied its stately 35 years, and the same friendly crowd populated each day’s events, relaxed affairs held at the fest’s presenting sponsor, the Halekulani resort.

A simple opening reception featured a short performance of traditional Hawaiian hula, followed by an introductory address by HIFF executive director Robert Lambeth, who highlighted the stronger-than-ever line-up this year—17 U.S., 14 international and 32 world premieres. At Sunday’s more elaborate awards gala, visiting dignitaries—amongst them directors Freida Lee Mock and James Moll, Cannes’ Marché du film executive director Jérôme Paillard and producer Nina Yang Bongiovi—handed out honors: The narrative feature “Golden Orchid” went to South Korean mystery drama Madonna, while circuit favorite Crocodile Gennadiy took home the documentary prize. Surf and turf and champagne accompanied live music from Taj Mahal and Tomi Fujiyama, both subjects of HIFF docs (American Epic and Made in Japan, respectively). Chinese artist Chen Jialing, himself subject of a Jia Zhangke-produced documentary and a premiering exhibit near the Dole, gave his remarks dressed in a red robe bearing his own hand-painted, HIFF-inspired designs.

HIFF executive director Robert Lambeth, Freida Lee Mock, James Moll, and Nate Kohn

HIFF executive director Robert Lambeth with festival jurors Freida Lee Mock, James Moll and EbertFest’s Nate Kohn. Photograph by Johnny Ng, courtesy of HIFF

HIFF’s traditionally excellent selection of Asia-Pacific films saw dedicated sections for Korea, Japan, China, India, Taiwan, the Philippines and Southeast Asia—and Hawaii, of course—leading the festival’s 180-plus titles. Of these, Korean cinema proved the glitziest, with a couple of big headliners in the mix. Opening night audiences watched South Korean AMPAS official submission The Throne, a lavish intergenerational melodrama set within the 18th century Joseon dynasty. A lengthy Q&A followed with effusive director Lee Joon-ik, who delighted in discussing  historical details with audience members, many of whom didn’t need the help of his translator. Later in the week, zany WWII action caper Assassination (a domestic megahit) drew even bigger crowds. Bolstered by the presence of director Choi Dong-hoon and, especially, star Ha Jung-woo (who plays a character named “Hawaii Pistol”), the sold-out theater skewed female and Korean. Ha, matinee idol and director in his own right, ducked out of the room immediately after his Q&A, pursued by fans.

Opening Night film, THE THRONE director Lee Joon-Ik and his wife at the press conference

The Throne director Lee Joon-Ik and his wife at a press conference (no, really). Photograph by Johnny Ng, courtesy of HIFF

The small-but-solid European Showcase section was an opportunity to catch up on many of that continent’s 2015 hits: Youth, Mustang, Son of Saul, 45 Years, Brooklyn and so on. And alongside big guns like Where to Invade Next and Carol, mainland U.S. indies had a platform in the thoughtfully curated New American Filmmakers program, presented by the Vilcek Foundation, featuring immigrant talents from Kiwi stuntwoman-turned-producer Zoe Bell (Camino) to French helmer Gabrielle Demeestere (Yosemite).

Unsurprisingly, given the setting’s diverse cultural resonances, themes of diaspora filled HIFF screens. Over and over again, stories grappled with the discord that erupts when cultures, like tectonic plates, collide (a natural preoccupation in 2015, perhaps, given the mass transcontinental movements of the present). In Jia Jiangke’s tripartite epic Mountains May Depart, the Pet Shop Boys anthem “Go West” worked as an optimistic imperative, initially, then as an elegy to wandering too far from home, alienation from one’s origins, and the loneliness of those left behind. Jacques Audiard’s Palme d’Or-winning Dheepan presented three Sri Lankan refugees forging a makeshift family in utterly foreign France. Meanwhile, U.S.-China romance Front Cover sparked conversation about the discrepancies of cultural acceptance both on screen and off: While the film has distribution in New York and Hong Kong, a pivotal gay love scene effectively renders moot its chances of theatrical distribution in many other regions—a reminder, director Ray Yeung pointed out, that progress doesn’t happen unilaterally across the world. (Though the film might play at certain underground LGBT festivals in Asia, he said.)

Canadian-Japanese documentary Lost & Found, on the other hand, placed themes of dispersal and migration into objects: personal belongings wrested away from their owners during the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, then washed up on the shores of America’s Pacific Northwest and discovered by beachcombers. I found the efforts of these beachcombers to return the objects unexpectedly moving; the once inconsequential items (a volleyball, a child’s bicycle helmet, a buoy) became vested with immense significance to the original owners, many of whom were still rebuilding their lives after the tragedy, and to the finders, compelled almost obsessively to extend these grand gestures of friendship and sympathy.

Then there was Josh Bishop’s Made in Japan, which follows Japanese country star Tomi Fujiyama’s return to America, more than 40 years after a historic 1964 performance at the Grand Ole Opry, in a quest to play that famous stage once more. When Made in Japan premiered at South by Southwest this March, the film ended with Fujiyama’s ambitions dashed an industry vastly different to the one she’d known in her youth. The HIFF version, though, featured a new and—spoiler—much happier epilogue. After the screening, the pint-sized, irrepressibly dynamic Fujiyama performed a couple of country classics, including Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” for a rapt audience, and took questions about her next career goals. The 75-year-old has plenty: “I’ve dreamed so many dreams,” she said. (Probably not on that list? The festival karaoke party that night, presided over by HIFF publicity duo Eseel Borlasa and Tracy Nguyen-Chung, and head programmer Anderson Le. Fujiyama made a gracious appearance anyway.)

Made in Japan star Tomi Fujiyama performs after a screening of the doc

Made in Japan star Tomi Fujiyama performs after a screening of the documentary

This discourse about homes—adopting new homes, returning to old homes, the tenuousness and luxury of belonging—came to a climax for me at a screening of Hawaiian documentary Dear Thalia. Rex Moribe’s feature is a portrait of a homeless family, the Martins, living on the streets of Honolulu’s beachfront Kaka’oka neighborhood, epicenter of the highest-per-capita homeless rate in America. Watching charismatic father Tracy, young mother Tabatha and the impossibly cute three-year-old Thalia lose their tents over and over to police “sweeps” was hard to stomach. Equally so were the clips from the 1981 documentary “The Sand Island Story,” by Victoria Keith and Jerry Rochford, that Moribe intercut with his present-day footage (Sand Island is a small island belonging to Honolulu on which squatters had set up shacks, subsequently destroyed by the state.) Keith helped produce Dear Thalia and attended the screening—the first time, in fact, that she and Moribe had met face to face. Both filmmakers, together with the Martin family, hosted an intense full-house Q&A session, in which affluent Honolulu’s policy-makers were criticized for turning land over to tourist properties instead of government housing.

“It’s us that make Hawaii and bring ‘aloha,’” said Tracy Martin, referring to families like his, “not the hotels and the gift stores.”

An overly simplistic dichotomy, sure. Yet his words, and the film, threw everything I had been blithely partaking in all week in perspective: gorging on poke, sunbathing at the beach, hiking to the top of Diamond Head crater. Perhaps, I thought, Waikiki’s artfully engendered coziness and familiarity—those insta-homey feelings I’d met when I landed—had nothing to do with me; perhaps that very capacity of the island, its ability to welcome all people, contained a destructive edge, one that functioned in part through the abandonment of its own. What was tourism at all if not playing house in a strange, new place, then leaving before realities sink in?

My experience watching Dear Thalia as a visitor to Honolulu was very different from that of a local. As uncomfortable as I felt, though, about my own small complicity in the city’s vast inequality, I also felt a newfound admiration for HIFF, pulling off the considerable task of being both an international showcase and a vital ally for its community. As festivalgoers, we were granted the privilege of watching films together from a place of respect, curiosity and compassion, whether we were visitors or natives. It was a good place to be.

Tuesday morning, some festival friends took me on a sightseeing drive around Oahu, which culminated in a stop at the Pali Lookout, a stone terrace at 1,000-feet elevation with views of the island’s Windward coast. A heavy November downpour had begun, so we had only ourselves (and some local fowl, shivering in the bushes) for company. Mountain peaks loomed up on either side of us, dense with vegetation. The sea was a bright strip of blue through low clouds. In clear weather, I was told, you could take a walk from the Lookout onto an old road, where the jungle is in the process of reclaiming the highway. That phrase stuck with me—”the jungle reclaiming the highway”—as if it too was evoking the cycles of ownership and identity enacted out there on those shores. It remained too wet to venture deeper and we headed back to downtown Honolulu, but I was sad to have missed that trail. Maybe next time. MM

The 35th Hawaii International Film Festival ran November 12 – 22, 2015. For more information, visit the festival’s website here.

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