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Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2002

Visiting true film friends in Hawaii

I've been going to the Hawaii International Film Festival every year since 1996 and have always thought of it as the ideal movie-geek's holiday. A week in Hawaii at the beginning of November is a good way to steel myself for the coming five months of kerosene heaters, blustery winds and the other delights of a Tokyo winter.

News photo
Seung Ho Yoo and Eul Boon Kim in "The Way Home"

Then there are the films, nearly 200 this year, from all parts of Asia and the rest of the world, many making their U.S. and world premieres. Also, HIFF is run and supported mostly by people who are passionate about film, not industry types trying to push product. And being citizens of the Land of Aloha, they go out of their way to make outlanders feel welcome -- you go for the first time as a guest, the second time as a friend. The contrast with the Tokyo International Film Festival could not be more dramatic.

The main problem with the event, which ran this year Nov. 1-10 on Oahu and Nov. 8-10 on the neighboring islands, is one of logistics. Most Honolulu venues require schleps by bus or taxi from the Waikiki hotels, with the largest, the Dole Cannery multiplex, being a 30-minute bus-ride away in off-peak traffic. And when you return to your hotel after the last screenings, you may find yourself camping out by the bus stop for an eternity or two, as I did one memorable night. The obvious solution -- to use venues closer to Waikiki -- is not doable for one obvious reason: Waikiki theater-owners are reluctant to book obscure Asian films, when they could be packing them in with "Jackass."

This year the festival featured a focus on Korean cinema -- timely given the current vitality of the Korean film industry, whose films have been not only winning critical accolades abroad, but beating out Hollywood in their home market. It's as though Korean film folk have made a careful study of their Japanese counterparts -- and are doing nearly everything differently.

The fest's opening-night film, Kim Hyun Seok's "YMCA Baseball Team," is one example of the Korean industry's crowd-pleasing strategy. Starring Song Kang Ho (the moon-faced banker-turned-pro-wrestler in "The Foul King"), the film is a comedy about the trials and triumphs of Korea's first baseball team. Starting as a ragtag outfit, whose players have never seen a baseball, the team becomes a local powerhouse under the leadership of its unlikely manager, the lovely Jung Lim (Im Hyesu). When a Japanese military team challenges the YMCA-ers to a game, they must either win, or disappoint a nation about to sink under Japanese rule and desperately in need of a moral victory. Strenuously cute and tiresomely formulaic, "YMCA Baseball Team" nonetheless hits all the right audience buttons -- if the audience happens to be Korean.

My own favorite Korean film at HIFF was Lee Jung Hyang's "The Way Home." The premise is sitcom-ish: A single mom sends her spoiled-rotten son to live with her aged mother in the countryside while she looks for a job in Seoul. The boy lives for his Game Boy, comic books and Big Macs, while the grandmother is a staunch traditionalist.

In other words, generation-gap comedy here we come, but the old woman is mute -- and infinitely patient. When the boy pouts, shouts and otherwise acts the brat, she offers no opposition -- he only bounces off a silent wall, to hilarious effect. Gradually, he comes to accept his situation -- and cherish this woman who cares for him so uncomplainingly. Perfectly cast and filmed with directness and simplicity, "The Way Home" is more than conventionally heart-warming; it has rare human wisdom.

Similarly excellent, but in a quite different way, was "Eyes of a Beauty" by Guan Hu, winner of the festival's Netpac Award for best film by an emerging director. Shot in a mountainous region near Shanghai renowned for its natural beauty and historical significance, the film recalls, in its dark, misty atmospherics, an older, more traditional China. The story, however, is anything but old-fashioned, as it tells how three women meet by chance at a moment of critical change for all of them. Along the way, director Guan Hu deftly presents parallels that draw the women -- and the narrative -- together, while precisely locating each one in her individual destiny. It's a masterly, ambitious work, with the depth and resonance of good fiction.

I was also lucky enough to catch the winner of the festival's Golden Maile Award for Best Documentary, "Spellbound." Filmed by ESPN director Jeff Blitz, the film traces the progress of eight contestants in the National Spelling Bee, which has become a U.S. institution. In addition to closely observed, wittily individualized portraits of its principals, the film offers fascinating insights into parenting styles, regional and class differences, and even winning strategies. (It helps to have Indian immigrant parents with a fixation on academic success.) The film is also a great human drama -- and a heartening affirmation that not all kids out there are lost without their spellcheckers.

The documentary with the biggest buzz, however, was "Bowling for Columbine," Michael Moore's acerbic-but-thorough investigation into U.S. gun culture. Prompted by the horrifying shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado, by two students who bought their bullets at the local Kmart, Moore asks why Americans kill so many of their fellow citizens with guns. In many documentaries of this kind, the filmmaker begins with a thesis and proves it, come what may, but though Moore's sympathies are entirely with the victims and against the NRA, he has no easy answers. There are also millions of gun owners in Canada, he notes, but the murder rate there is far lower than in the United States. Even more amazingly, he discovers, most Canadians leave their doors unlocked -- unthinkable in most communities south of the border. He fingers U.S. media scaremongers as one reason for this difference, but it is hardly the only one.

One highlight is his visit to Kmart headquarters with two young Columbine victims to demand that the company stop selling handgun bullets in its stores. Used to playing the perpetual gadfly, Moore is flummoxed by the company's quick capitulation (though he does shake the PR woman's hand). He does, however, know how to make an engaging and entertaining film -- two adjectives that should describe documentaries more often than they do. Mr. Moore.


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