In the humble Hawaiian bed-and-breakfast where much of “August at Akiko’s” is set, a sign to guests offers the following instruction for when they depart: “Leave no trace, just a presence.” In a sense, writer-director Christopher Makoto Yogi’s beguiling whisper of a debut does much the same thing: A late-summer mood piece, sometimes literally meditative in pace and ambience, it’s not heavy-imprint filmmaking, but its breezy, benevolent warmth stays with you after its immediate details begin to fade. Starring acclaimed jazz musician Alex Zhang Hungtai as a fictionalized version of himself, chasing his past and a human connection on the sleepy Hawaiian island of his childhood, it is, among other virtues, a soul-deep love letter to a state that Hollywood tends to more glibly romanticize. Following its Rotterdam premiere, the film’s wistful sunniness should warm up further festival programs.
Competing with the luxuriant coastal scenery for the camera’s besotted gaze much of the time is the pensive, story-laden face of Zhang, compellingly shouldering his first film after an enigmatic appearance in David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” revival last year. The Taiwanese-Canadian, known to the music world as Dirty Beaches, has garnered something of a cult following for his atmospheric fusion of traditional jazz and new-wave modernism. If his cool mystique initially seems out of place in these bright, modest proceedings, that’s rather the point in a story about finding roots from which you’ve long drifted.
The culture clash at the heart of “August at Akiko’s” is set up sonically in the opening scenes, as the brassy clatter of Zhang’s jazz compositions — he’s also responsible for the film’s textured, head-filling score — meshes with the more stately echo of traditional Buddhist instrumentation. Over images of sunlight rippling through through a lush tropical forest with skittering, almost strobe-like intensity, this soundtrack lends proceedings an entrancing quality from the get-go, setting the tone for a film woozily concerned with finding bliss. Before that can happen, however, Alex needs to find home.
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Arriving on the Big Island after a period of estrangement only lightly alluded to in Makoto Yogi’s spare screenplay, he sets off in search of his grandparents’ house, with only childhood memory as his navigation system. Yet the house has been demolished, his family has passed without his knowledge, and there’s nary a trace of his ancestors’ existence on the land. Disillusioned and directionless — to the point of playing a woebegone saxophone solo of “Auld Lang Syne” — he stumbles upon a retreat run by Akiko (the delightful Akiko Masuda), a sprightly but calmly centred Buddhist woman who seems to have mastered the peace that eludes him, and decides to stay for a while.
Over the course of a few weeks, she takes him into her confidence and her care: Stories, therapeutic techniques and musical gifts are exchanged, as the two form a sweetly pure, spiritual bond. That’s the extent of the drama in “August at Akiko’s.” Its pleasures are ones of being rather than doing, as Alex and Akiko’s minds meet and harmonize, while Makoto Yogi takes advantage of the silence to patiently observe nature at rest and local customs at play — the film is a rare, affectionate portrait of Hawaiian Japanese culture as it has survived into the 21st-century.
Straightforward but soft in touch, Makoto Yogi’s approach sits casually at the no-rush-hour junction of Jem Cohen and Naomi Kawase, while Eunsoo Cho’s clean, big-skied lensing gives the emerald landscape its due without resorting to picture-postcard aesthetics. Needless to say, a film in which entire scenes are built around breathing exercises risks being blown away by the slightest island zephyr, but its themes of empathy and internal healing hold it down without portent. At 75 minutes, meanwhile, it’s stringently shaped by Makoto Yogi (also on editing duty), who appears to heed Alex’s own musical advice given in the film: “A hairsbreadth deviation, and you are out of tune.”