Maven's Nest

Reel Life: Flick Pix

- still from Cane Fire

- still from Waikiki

Behind “Paradise”: two debut films dissect the non-tourist sides of Hawai’i

By Nora Lee Mandel

Directed and Edited by Anthony Banua-Simon
Produced and Written by Anthony Banua-Simon and Michael Vass
USA. 90 min. Not Rated

(streamed at MoMA’s 2021 Documentary Fortnight/ also at the 2021 Prismatic Ground Film Festival)

Written and Directed by Christopher Kahunahana
Produced by Christopher Kahunahana, Nicole Naone, Greg Doi, Vince Keala Lucero, and Benson Lee
USA. 77 min. Not Rated
In English and Ōlelo Hawaiʻi with English subtitles
With: Danielle Zalopany, Peter Shinkoda, Jason Quinn, Kealohi Kalahiki, and Claire Johnson

(streamed through 2021 Mother Tongue Film Festival/ also at Seattle International Film Festival)

My last big family vacation before the pandemic was to Hawaiʻi, a holiday I am feeling guilty about since being knocked back by two compelling debut filmmakers with long ties to the islands. In very different ways, each looks emotionally behind the scenes at the human and environmental toll on the indigenous and local populations of the tourist and colonial industries. Anthony Banua-Simon’s intense documentary Cane Fire compares Hollywood’s glamorous images of the island of Kauaʿi to generations of his family’s experiences working there with the rise and fall of the sugar plantations. With Waikiki, Christopher Kahunahana effectively uses noir mode to contrast a Hawaiian woman’s struggles in her life now with the spirituality and connection to nature in her family’s past.

Cane Fire is named after the original title of the first Hollywood movie made on location on Kauaʿi, directed by Lois Weber, the first prominent female director. Among his Filipino-descended family, it’s lore that in 1933 Banua-Simon’s muscular great-grandfather was an “exotic” extra on the set. His role can’t be confirmed because the censored negative of what was released as White Heat has disappeared, like so many early films, and like so much of the evidence of the real life of workers on the island.

Interlaced with archival footage and family photographs, interviews with his elderly relatives and their friends move around crumbling mills, canneries, and the ethnically segregated workers’ camps. They reminisce child labor and abusive conditions, and speak with pride of union organizing in the 1940’s against the Big 5 sugar and pineapple companies. In masterful editing, film clips, such as John Wayne hunting Communist trouble-makers in Big Jim McLain (1952), pointedly illustrate the politics behind the PR images of paradise. (The plethora of titles is hard to read, like identifying the black-and-white movie where a “labor relations manager” comes to quash union activity.)

Bringing the monopoly strangleholds up-to-date, the Big 5 are shown to now be real estate companies. Property sells at rising prices to time-sharers who cheerfully tell the director they consider themselves Hawaiian residents. Meanwhile, his young cousins are exhausted from dealing with rising rents and make-shift, low-pay service jobs.

Community activists’ quixotic attempt to bring back indigenous agricultural and spiritual practices to a resort property that had commercialized Hawaiian culture into tourist kitsch flourishes hopefully. But their efforts are doomed in real time in front of the camera by a real estate developer. Cane Fire’s overwhelming accumulation of stunning visual and lived oral history is damning.

Accompanying Cane Fire in the 2021 Prismatic Ground Film Festival was Christopher Makoto Yogi’s more ironic short compilation film Occasionally, I Saw Glimpses of Hawai'i. The accumulation of clips mock how little or authentic of the state has really been seen in 100 years of film and TV productions made on location.

Waikiki is promoted as “the first narrative feature written and directed by a Native Hawaiian filmmaker”. Like in his debut short Lāhainā Noon (2014), Christopher Kahunahana sees Hawaiʻi’s sun and surf as a curse on the people of the islands since Captain James Cook’s “discovery” in 1788 attracted colonizers.

The ocean haunts Kea (the provocative Danielle Zalopany). She’s trying to get a steady job that would pay her rent, rather than putting in shifts singing the old title pop tune in tacky nightclub hula routines and karaoke bars. She’s happiest when she gets the brief opportunity to teach children the native Ōlelo Hawaiʻi language. But teaching them the songs her grandmother (Claire Johnson) sang to her jags memories of her childhood imbibing her culture.

In contrast, she is trying to get disentangled from a terribly abusive relationship with the hunky but very volatile Branden (Jason Quinn, looking quite scary). Every one she knows does tell her to break up with him. She is so desperate that she moves into his van to get away from him. But she slips away from one man only to get burdened by another when she accidentally drives into, then feels responsible for, a long-haired homeless drunk, Wo (Peter Shinkoda, in a wordless role).

Roaming through a picaresque plot around grungy parts of Honolulu, Kea’s chain-smoking days and nights lurch from bad to worse, and her mood gets ever more agitated. But even as her external situation more and more resembles Wo’s, his presence more and more spiritually centers her, especially linking her to the ocean and nature. (Some of her dreams resemble scenery where Lost filmed.) When Kea seems to hit bottom, Wo can bring on a rainbow. In her world, that’s hope.

“As we leave…” - I would reenact James FitzPatrick’s bombastic short travelogues, like his Honolulu: The Paradise of the Pacific (1935), with their exaggerated emphasis on native beauty and beauties, when I left each island as a clueless tourist. Instead, these bleak new films show us the ominous reality of hanging on in paradise.


Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews

My reviews have appeared on: Film-Forward; FF2 Media; Lilith, FilmFestivalTraveler; and, Alliance of Women Film Journalists and for Jewish film festivals. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.

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