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DIRECTED BY: Christopher Kahunahana
FEATURING: Danielle Zalopany, Peter Shinkoda, Jason Quinn
PLOT: A Hawaiian native who works three jobs to make ends meet undergoes a breakdown when her van hits a homeless man.
COMMENTS: Kea starts Waikiki with three jobs: a hula dancer at a tourist show, a part-time instructor of native Hawaiian language at an elementary school, and, most lucratively, a gig at a hostess bar where she sings karaoke duets with lonely old men (a vocation that is slighter sadder than outright prostitution). Still, she can’t quite make ends meet—thanks in part to her estrangement from an abusive boyfriend—and is living out of her van. She also has a history of unspecified mental illness: when she tells her ex that she’s hit a homeless man, he wonders if she’s imagined it. That hit-and-not-run is the impetus for her sudden descent into homelessness. Guilty Kea gathers the bum into her van, carting him around for the rest of the movie as her already bleak fortunes sink lower.
Shots of dingy, dark concrete streets alternate with visions of tranquil blue seas and cool streams cutting their way through verdant forests. Honolulu (outside of Waikiki’s beaches) is an ugly city, plopped smack into the middle of a tropical paradise. He aili’i ka aina, he kanau ke kanaka, Kea scrawls on a whiteboard for the edification of her young students. “The land is the chief, the people are the servants.” Cut to a shot of a crane hoisting metal girders into the sky (construction projects are omnipresent in Waikiki‘s Honolulu). Kea looks grim and anxious filling out an application for housing; then, dolled up and adorned with a stage smile, she sways and mouths Connie Francis’ cheesy lyrics: “There’s a feeling deep in my heart/Stabbing at me just like a dart/It’s a feeling so heavenly…” The contrasts are obvious, but meaningful. We don’t mind when Kahunahana hammers them, because he’s getting at something uncomfortably true: the precariousness of the daily lives of millions of workers, as glamorous-on-the-surface bottle girl Kea sinks into dereliction in the space of a couple of days.
As the bum, Peter Shinkoda’s function within the story is ambiguous. He isn’t exactly mute, but he almost never speaks, and when he does it’s only on fragments. He becomes Kea’s voluntary responsibility, but in a sense, he drags her down to his level rather than redeeming her. He also serves as a conduit for her flashbacks. She berates him, calls him “pilau,” and the camera focuses on his face as it segues into a brief montage of her childhood memories before cutting back to a shot of her gazing into a mirror. Coupled with shots later in the film, the editing suggests an identification between Kea and Shinkoda that runs deeper than the surface plot might suggest.
Waikiki is being pitched by some as “the first narrative feature written and directed by a Native Hawaiian filmmaker.” A quick IMDb search reveals the existence of Keo Woolford‘s The Haumana (2013), which itself doesn’t seem like it could possibly be the first narrative feature written and directed by a native Hawaiian. That said, it’s still an extremely rare occurrence, and the novel native Hawaiian perspective here is one of Waikiki‘s pleasures, along with breezy island cinematography and a magnetically dark and ironic performance from Zalopany.
In limited theatrical release at the moment after an unusually long festival run, Waikiki should find a bigger audience on VOD starting December 5.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…ventures into the surreal… while it creates some confusion as far as the narrative is concerned – or what there is of it — the writer/director shows a strong handle over sequences that stir the subconscious.”–Stephen Saito, The Moveable Feast (contemporaneous)