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Thread: WAIKIKI (Christopher Kahunahana 2020)

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    Jul 2002
    SF Bay Area

    WAIKIKI (Christopher Kahunahana 2020)



    A pretty film about poverty and homelessness in Honolulu's tourist center

    Waikiki may be the first feature written and directed by a Native Hawaiian filmmaker. He is Christopher Kahunahana, a Sundance Lab alumnus who says his screenplay comes straight from personal experience since he himself would have been homeless, like his protagonist, had he not been rescued by his family. Kahunahana's overall aim is to show the ugliness behind the tropical paradise, to present the grim realities of Hawaiian urban life as exemplified in the tacky, overpriced Las Vegas-style neighborhood that is the Honolulu tourist trap Waikiki. What we see in the foreground are sordid lives going nowhere. Meanwhile the air is full of the noise of construction as new hotels and condos are constantly going up.

    We witness all this from the point of view of Kea (Danielle Zalopany) a young Native Hawaiian woman working at multiple jobs, in a bar, as a hula dancer, and teaching local kids the Hawaiian language, while she has been reduced to living in a van, a lowly status convenient at least for getting quickly from one gig to the next. She doesn't seem to have a family to rescue her. All she has, and can intermittently reach on her flip phone, is her abusive boyfriend Brandon (Jason Quinn). In the background of one scene, viewed through a big hole Brandon has just knocked in a flimsy wall, we seem to see that he and Kea also have a small kid, and a live-in granny. He wants her to come home, and maybe there is a home. And appropriately, he works in construction. But he's hardly welcoming, since his dialogue consists entirely of shouting and F-words.

    Kea wants to avoid Brandon's abusiveness. She prefers to wander earnestly and confusedly in and out of the company of the long-haired "pilau" (filthy) vagrant named Wo (Peter Shinkoda) whom she runs over in the opening sequence after a fight with Brandon, who has dragged her out of the bar where she's hostessing. Not knowing what to do after hitting the man, Kea pulls him into her van. Later, after the van is towed by police while she is away, she seems to live in a world of sad memories and ride around with Wo on a small bike she has found, though these sequences may or may not be real. Haunted by flashbacks to childhood abandonment traumas, he has become deranged. Can Brandon rescue her? We don't know, but he seems to want to.

    Jon Olsen, one of a number online writers enthusiastic about this movie (while others dismiss it), says on Letterboxd that the director "has an uncanny gift for blending gritty social realism with visionary nightmare surrealism." Indeed that is what he endeavors to do here. But he doesn't reveal a corresponding gift for telling a coherent story or keeping the action moving along. The first forty minutes feel like ninety. There is little actual social detail, and the second half of the film is nothing but a collage of shots. Some are complex and beautiful, showing evidence of the film's long and precise post production process, but they do not cohere into anything but the bare first sketch of a story.

    Waikiki is weighed down by first-film earnestness. Moments of visual beauty frequently arise, though, through the cinematography of dp Ryan Miyamoto, which veers back and forth between the grim and the gorgeous. Hawaii is a beautiful place if you're happy and well off, but a mockery if not -r maybe it still looks beautiful, but just not real. Certainly an important first strong cinematic protest statement by an indigenous Hawaiian filmmaker, Waikiki struck me as too thin on foreground action and too meandering and poetic to make its important social and political points.

    Waikiki, 83 mins., debuted at New York's Urbanworld festival and the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival Oct. 2020, showed Nov. 25, 2020 at the Hawaii Film Festival, and lately at Seattle Apr. 9, 2021. The film received the Made in Hawaii and Best Cinematography awards at the Hawaii International Film Festival and the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. It is coming to the SFIFF. Watched for this review on a screener at home Apr. 10, 2021.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 04-11-2021 at 01:21 PM.


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