Hawaii, you could say, has a Hawaii problem.
It’s a place, like Paris or New York City, that has become more than geography. Hawaii is a state of mind, a narrative shorthand. So many versions of it have been rendered in modern culture—most of which revolve around a “change of scenery,” an “escape” and, yes, the “exotic”—that fantasy looms large over the truth of the place.
Where does perception end and reality begin? I cut myself some slack for romanticizing Oahu (even on my second visit). The island possesses such a default ease that you’re lulled into forgetting about, say, its complicated and painful annexation by the United States in the late 19th century, or the more contemporary ailments of economic inequality. See instead the coral-pink elegance of the Royal Hawaiian hotel, the tropical birds trilling in the dense green outside your window, the strip of blue so broad and sparkly that it can’t really be the ocean (and it is).
It’s a living Disney dream, so far away from the “real world” of the continental U.S. that, as one Uber driver said to my friend Lara and me the day before the presidential election, he was having trouble motivating himself to vote. What difference does it make, he said; by the time the polls close in Hawaii we know the winner already. (And indeed I keep finding myself thinking back to that sweet, sleepy Tuesday morning last week, when we trekked out to the Edenic Manoa Falls, still hopeful about what was playing out across the mainland.)
Anyway. When the sun begins to set in Honolulu, the Hawaii International Film Festival kicks into gear. Head to the Dole Cannery—past the homeless encampments I wrote about last year that, in the past 12 months, have relocated from Kaka’oka to the streets around the complex— and it’s all business: long lines of ticket-holders, a motley of press, filmmakers getting photographed on the red carpet or milling around waiting for Q&As to start.
HIFF is now in its 36th year, captained by Executive Director Robert Lambeth and programmed by the indefatigable duo of Anderson Le and Anna Page, who compiled the 177 films (19 world, 19 U.S. and 22 international premieres among them) in 2016’s line-up. The festival has, admirably, forged itself as a vehicle for exploring of the real Hawaii, a kind of town hall where locals can gather to talk things out—and reconcile their lives with the beautiful pictures on screens.
This year, a lively panel called “Choke Misrepresentation” channeled the film industry’s current grappling with diversity and authenticity (“choke,” I learned, means “abundant” in Hawaiian pidgin). Moderated by Taylour Chang, director of the Doris Duke Theater at the Honolulu Museum of Art, the panel featured a quintet of Honolulu heavyweights: Daniel Dae Kim, the Korean-born Lost and Hawaii Five-0 star and TV producer; Chris Lee, former president of production at Columbia-TriStar and founder of the Academy of Creative Media at University of Hawaii; Donne Dawson, Hawaii Film Office commissioner; Keo Woolford, actor and director of The Haumāna; and moviemaker Christopher Makoto Yogi, whose first feature, I Was a Simple Man, went through Sundance Directors and Screenwriters Labs.
Panelists spoke about their frustrations with media portrayals—or lack thereof—of Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders and Asian-Americans in general. Dawson brought up recent Hawaii-centered Hollywood gaffs, like Emma Stone’s casting as an Asian-American character in Cameron Crowe’s 2015 Aloha (a film that was described by the advocacy group Media Action Network for Asian-Americans as “whitewashed,” alongside other similar modern offenders like The Descendants, 50 First Dates, Blue Crush and Pearl Harbor). Stone’s casting—like Scarlett Johansson’s and Tilda Swinton’s as Asian characters in Ghost in the Shell and Doctor Strange, respectively—rankled in a time when many non-white actors are fighting for proportionate visibility.
In some ways, though, the idealized Hawaii that exists in movies might work in the state’s creative favor, Dawson pointed out: “The world wants to embrace Hawaiian values.” The commissioner endorsed Disney’s upcoming Pacific Islands-set Moana, for which the studio carried out years of research and set up the Oceanic Trust, a group of Polynesian culture experts who advised on all manner of story details (which, it should be pointed out, hasn’t absolutely protected the film from criticism).
Yogi, for his part, talked about the subtly belittling casting conversations he’d had while pitching his feature, with one producer telling him to find “the ‘Asian-American Oscar Isaac’—whatever that means.”
Conversation moved on to the effects that longtime marginalization has on a creative community: namely, the excessive pressure placed on a person when they are seen as a stand-in for an entire group of society. (This is sometimes referred to as “rep sweats,” a term reportedly coined by comedian Jenny Yang and Angry Asian Man’s Phil Yu and Joanna Lee.) Chris Lee described his own “theory of the pop-culturally disenfranchised:” People, he said, are “so starved to see themselves, but they only want to see exactly themselves, or themselves portrayed positively.”
Kim, one of the most prominent Asian-American actors today, lamented his career-long struggle with that burden: “We can’t be expected to be all things to all people.” Proposing ways to increase Asian-American visibility, he used language most commonly associated with consent: The only way for creatives to maintain power and control over their own images, he said, is to say no. He recalled turning down mid-six-figure salaries on jobs that were at odds with his integrity. The actor, whose production company, 3AD, has a development deal with CBS, talked about leveraging his power for good: “I made it very clear to CBS that if they wanted to deal with me, I was going to be telling underrepresented stories.”
Of course, as other panelists were quick to point out, not everyone has the luxury of being able to say no. Another strategy, then? Dawson said that for her, it’s all about identifying authentic voices and supporting them. “That’s why independent film is important—you maintain that control.” Woolford, who self-distributed The Haumāna and is now working on a sequel, agreed; he quoted Russell Simmons: “Do you, and let the mainstream come to you.”
During the Q&A, one audience member took a stab at articulating some thoughts that I’d been mulling over, myself: Is there a limit to the zealous search for authenticity? Does a horror of anything “inauthentic” lead to an oversimplified understanding of art, according to which creators should only make films about their own personal experiences? Yet the panel was running overtime, and a thoroughly satisfying answer was not forthcoming. Kim did offer up some final words of inspiration: “This [fight for equal representation] doesn’t happen in a vacuum. We stand on the shoulders of people who came before us, as we will be the shoulders for people who come after.”
That sentiment summed up another major theme at HIFF 2016: Asian cinematic history. In both films and special events, this year’s festival centered on ideas of classic film, its legacy and excavation.
One such title was the world-premiering Finding Kukan, which won its maker, Robin Lung, a Documentary Jury Special Mention. The doc chronicles the Lung’s seven-year journey unraveling the mystery of pioneering Chinese-Hawaiian filmmaker Li Ling-Ai, producer of the 1941 Oscar-winning documentary epic Kukan. Kukan had long been given up for lost, until Lung found a badly damaged copy and set about restoring it. She also explores the reasons why Li has been largely forgotten by history, while Kukan’s accolades went chiefly to its director, Rey Scott.
Another documentary, Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya’s Cannes-premiering The Cinema Travellers, took home a top honor with the fest’s Golden Orchid for Best Documentary Feature, and follows the men who run a series of screening roadshows across rural India. While their screenings are well-attended, time works against our stalwart managers and projectionists, as their ancient 35mm projectors and other contraptions gradually crumble away and newer technologies change the game.
Steven Okazaki’s Mifune: The Last Samurai continued its stellar festival run at HIFF. An ode to the late Japanese icon Toshiro Mifune, the star of more than 170 films and a frequent Akira Kurosawa collaborator, the doc boasts appearances from Mifune fans Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, and narration by Keanu Reeves.
The biggest draw, though, for lovers of classic Asian film was a tribute to the late Chinese director King Hu (A Touch of Zen, Dragon Inn) and his protégé and muse, the Shaw Brothers’ “Queen of Swords” Cheng Pei Pei. Accompanied by her three adult children—filmmakers in their own rights—the 70-year-old actress was feted, alongside other Taiwanese talent, at a dinner hosted by the Taiwan Academy of Los Angeles. Held at Chinatown restaurant The Pig & the Lady (owned by programmer Le’s brothers), which served Laotian fried chicken and a genius pho French dip, the party captured the spirit of the fest in an elegant nutshell, with everyone seeming to know each other, and multilingual conversations carried out across tables.
A couple of days later, the remarkably spritely Cheng sat down for a conversation with University of Hawaii associate professor George Wang, following a screening of Hu’s 1966 wuxia classic Come Drink With Me. In the innovative film, Cheng plays a warrior named Golden Swallow in highly stylized, ballet-like fight scenes which, she told us, were meticulously rehearsed.
The actress spoke at length about Hu’s impact on her own life (she currently presides over the King Hu Foundation) and their experience making Come Drink With Me together, negotiating the demands of producer Run Run Shaw, who disliked Golden Swallow’s boyish appearance and campaigned against Hu for more, and stronger, female characters.
Cheng is, these days, well-known for playing the villain Jade Fox in Ang Lee’s 2000 masterpiece Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (which also screened at HIFF); she continues to act regularly, and recently earned critical approval in director Hong Khaou’s indie feature Lilting. When Wang pointed out that she is the only ’60s Shaw Brothers star to still be working today, she gave a characteristically spirited answer: “I move with the tides. That’s why I’m still making movies.”
Will today’s talents one day transcend their rep sweats and reach the same plane of self-assuredness, I wondered—will they be afforded the same global fanbase that the studios of yore obtained for their stars? Sure, it’s a different time, and an entirely different world. Hawaii will prevail in cinema throughout it all, though—so HIFF seems to say. Here is where we succeeded before, and here is where we will succeed again. MM
The 36th Hawaii International Film Festival took place November 3-13, 2016.
Top image from Robin Lung’s Finding Kukan, courtesy of Hawaii International Film Festival.