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Sunday, Nov. 26, 2000

From here to paradise: Asian film in Hawaii

Special to The Japan Times

When it began in 1981, screening a handful of films at Honolulu's Varsity Theater, the Hawaii International Film Festival was something of an oddity -- an American film festival focusing on Asia, a region that was then cinematic terra incognito for all but a small number of American film buffs and scholars. In the 20 editions since, the HIFF has not only seen its program grow -- this year it presented more than 100 films on Oahu and five of the Neighbor Islands Nov. 3-19 -- but Asian cinema move to the front rank, both commercially and artistically. While some Asian filmmakers, such as John Woo and Ang Lee, have successfully invaded Hollywood, others, such as Zhang Yimou, Hou Tsiao-tsien, and Takeshi Kitano, have won major festival prizes and achieved recognition as world-class talents.

Meanwhile, other film festivals in North America and elsewhere have discovered Asia. Once a pioneer, HIFF is now one of a large and growing pack, all chasing the same films. How can it hope to stand out?

One stand-out advantage, at least for this reporter, faced with the prospect of yet another bone-chilling Tokyo winter, is its location. The weather in Hawaii in November is dodgy -- torrential rains swept over the Big Island the week before I arrived -- but in the main is what you would expect from a place the natives, unembarassedly, call paradise: blue skies, balmy breezes, aloha-shirt-friendly temperatures.

Another is the range of postscreening options. Instead of shivering outside at Shibuya Starbucks, watching packs of yamanba clump by in platform shoes, I can chill out at the hotel pool, snorkel at a nearby reef or spend a blissful hour browsing film books at Borders. Waikiki, where most of the festival delegates stay, may be geared to giving Japanese tourists dubious pleasures they can't readily get at home, from viewing hardcore porno to firing semiautomatic weapons, but it is also easy to escape. Rent a car, hit the road and within an hour you can be at a beach whose only occupants are surfers and circling gulls.

The program, of course, is the main reason for schlepping eight hours on an airplane. Hawaii's is an eclectic blend of pop and art, documentary and drama, Asian and North American, local color and exotic flavors. Several of its big titles this year, such as Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and Nagisa Oshima's "Gohatto (Taboo)," were well-traveled festival veterans by the time they arrived in Hawaii, while many other films were North American or even world premieres.

Several of its guests, such as critic Roger Ebert, who presented a three-day, shot-by-shot analysis of Hitchcock's "Vertigo," and Tom Selleck, who received the Filmmaker in Hawaii Award for his work on that soaring peak of cinematic achievement, "Magnum P.I.," were international celebrities, while others, such as Australian aboriginal country-western singer Jimmy Little, who performed at a screening of the documentary "Buried Country," were all-but unknown outside their homelands.

I spent much of my time either catching up with Japanese and Asian films I had missed elsewhere, or seeking out films I would probably never have a chance to see in Tokyo. Among the best in the former group was "Breaking the Silence," a film by Chinese director Sun Zhou, starring Gong Li as a single mother who scrapes out a living amid the glass towers of Beijing delivering newspapers and cleaning houses, while trying to give her deaf son a normal life.

More than just another melodrama about a hardworking Mom gritting through, the film is an unsparing examination of social conditions in modern China, where millions fight to survive in a harshly Darwinian world. The film was so unsparing in fact that Chinese authorities censored it and denied its director a visa to come to Hawaii. Gong Li, who has struggled professionally since her break-up with director Zhang Yimou, gives a brilliantly understated performance that may eschew her trademark glamour but is devastatingly persuasive.

Another was "City Paradise," directed by newcomer Tang Darian, which may have a generic poor-boy-in-the-big-city story line, but rejects the usual choice between heartwarming triumph or heartwrenching tragedy. Instead, the film's lank, handsome, smarmily charming hero has freed himself of conventional morality, including the obligation to support his long-suffering wife and senile mother in the provinces , only to replace it with a weakly conniving, smilingly self-serving and finally deadly amorality.

He is despicable, this hero; he is also convincing as a representative of the moral confusion descending on China today. But the fact that Tang was able to bring him to the screen is a sign that Chinese filmmakers are still winning the battle for truth, despite official attempts to shape or suppress it.

In the latter category was the aforementioned "Buried Country," a documentary by Australian filmmaker Andy Nehl, that examined, in intimate, revealing and entertaining detail, the six-decade history of country-western music among Aboriginal people, who have not only adopted this alien musical form, but also made it their own.

New Agers often romanticize the Aborigines, portraying them as either Stone Age seers or a trampled underclass, stripped by the white man of their culture and their future. The C&W artists of "Buried Country" may sing of hard times, but they are also men and women of talent, courage and humor, who have more musically in common with Hank Williams and George Jones than all those hippie types blowing on didgeridoos.

Any other reasons for marking HIFF on the festival calendar? Where else, but at the two Honolulu branches of a wonderful store called Avanti, can you find the same aloha shirt that Montgomery Clift wore in "From Here to Eternity?"


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