East-West cinema gets an isles seat

Virtually every film fest lays claim to some unique niche, but what really sets the Hawaii Intl. Film Festival apart, festival organizers say, is its East-meets-West vibe.

“The Asian content is not ghettoized,” says programmer Christian Razukas of the fest.

This makes sense in a state where nearly half the population is of Asian descent. The interest, however, cuts across all ethnic lines. “There is a great familiarity with Asian culture here,” Razukas adds.

Consequently, screenings draw large crowds of diverse backgrounds that can reach frenzied proportions thanks to the appearances of film stars from China, Korea and elsewhere.

“It’s not just Japanese in the audience for a Japanese movie,” Razukas says. “Everyone imaginable is in the audience.”

In particular, so big is the interest in Korean productions that HIFF holds K-Fest in August for films just from that country. Director of programming Anderson Le says that this mini-fest likewise draws a large turnout of mixed ethnicities.

“There is a proliferation of fan clubs for Korean actors. Korean soap operas are shown here on regular television,” he says, adding that Korea’s breakout success has become a pan-Asian role model.

At the main fest, Le says, there are lots of niches with “great spotlights on every region,” including Southeast Asia and Bollywood. This year, HIFF will feature special sections on the Philippines and the Vietnam diaspora.

Filipino Focus commemorates the 100th anniversary of the Pinoy migration to Hawaii. Both Le and Razukas are impressed with the new breed of filmmakers from that archipelago nation. Using digital cameras and micro budgets, these filmmakers have broken away from the stale sex comedy/ weepy drama formulas of the Philippines studio system to tell stories — not of Third World victimhood, but of unique looks at society.

Razukas gives as an example “Just Like Before.” He says sold-out screenings in Manila drew college-age students who normally never watch Filipino films.

The Vietnam Redux section features films both banned and embraced by that nation’s government. Among the highlights is “Journey From Hell,” a realistic look at the struggle of boat people in the U.S. Conversely, “Jackfruit Thorn Kiss” and “Saigon Love Story” were made by Vietnamese reared in the West but welcomed back to make “crowdpleasing films” of modern-day Vietnam.

Meanwhile, the culture of Hawaii will be prominently featured in a variety of works, including the Japanese comedy “Hula Girls.” Story is set in a struggling 1965 northern Japanese town that launches a Polynesian show to lure tourists. At the HIFF screening, Hawaii native and ukulele sensation Jake Shimabukuro will give a live performance of his music for the film. (Shimabukuro has been likened to the Jimi Hendrix of the instrument.)

On the documentary side, “Na Kamalei: Men of Hula” explores the revival of the only all-male school for hula and its efforts to bring dignity and masculinity back to the ancient ritual. Teacher Robert Cazimero will lead a live performance at the docu’s world-premiere sunset screening on the beach.

Festival executive director Chuck Boller says HIFF offers foreign visitors the chance to see movies from their home countries not easily viewed because of studio control of theaters.

“We have tourists come from Japan on tourist packages to see independent films,” Boller notes.

He adds the festival has a good balance of arty and commercial fare. He points with pride to the 26-year-old HIFF serving as an international launching pad for directors Ang Lee and China’s Zhang Yimou. This year a large delegation from the Shanghai filmmaking community will visit the fest, he says.

As for the Hollywood crowd, many still view Hawaii as more of a playground than a place to scout films. Ironically, they tend to look to Cannes, Toronto and Sundance for Asian films. Still, given that HIFF is not market-oriented, it is none too surprising that it is difficult to find acquisition executives who have attended the fest.

One who did was Marcus Hu, co-president of Strand Releasing. Hu attended the fest several years ago and says that HIFF is “in the right location for that kind of marketplace.” He found the fest to have a “great setting,” “appreciative audiences” and “great workshops.”

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