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Friday, Sept. 22, 2006

Small-town girls who get their groove on

"Hula Girls" sounds, from its title, like the many Japanese movies about loser heroes who take up minor sports or performing arts (sumo wrestling, ballroom dancing, rowing, synchronized swimming, swing jazz) and find their respective grooves. These films usually end with a big, rousing finale, in which the heroes exhibit their hard-won skills and show us that the waltz, say, is, guess what! -- really cool. Thus the boom in ballroom dancing prompted by the 1996 Masayuki Suo hit "Shall We Dance?"

Hula Girls Rating: (4 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
Yasuko Matsuyuki (far right) whips her charges into shape in "Hula Girl." (c)BLACK DIAMONDS

Director: Lee Sang Il
Running time: 108 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens Sept. 23, 2006
[See Japan Times movie listing]

Though it follows this formula, the latest film by director Lee Sang-il ("69," "Scrap Heaven") also departs from it in ways reminiscent of "The Full Monty" and "Brassed Off" (show biz brightens up an industrial hinterland) and Kirio Urayama's 1962 classic "Kyupora no Aru Machi" (Foundry Town), in which Sayuri Yoshinaga plays a spunky girl struggling to rise above her rough, factory town environment.

That is to say, Lee and coscriptwriter Daisuke Habara blend straight-up melodrama and social commentary into their pop entertainment mix. Their film is a frothy, campy pineapple drink, but spiked with a jolt of old-fashioned, eye-tearing Japanese shochu. This mix doesn't always go down easily -- especially in the long middle section, when the heartstring-tugging crises come along once every 10 minutes -- but the ending is an all-stops-out crowd pleaser that bursts with the sexual dynamism and exuberance of hula (not the sweetened-for-the-tourist-trade version). Purists may complain that the moves are more "Tanko Bushi" ("Coal Mining Song") than the real Hawaiian deal, but these girls can shake it. Have I sold you on this movie yet?

It begins in a setting as far removed from Waikiki as could be imagined: a dreary coal-mining town called Joban that, in 1965, was in an irreversible decline that the town fathers were trying desperately to reverse. One of them, the fluttery, bumbling but determined Yoshimoto (Kishibe Ittoku), has the brainstorm of starting a Hawaiian Center as a tourist magnet, whose main drawing card will be hula performed by local lasses. (This is not another high concept fantasy, but based on the true story of Joban's still ongoing contribution to Hawaiian culture.) He hires a professional dancer from Tokyo, one Madoka Hirayama (Yasuko Matsuyuki), as a hula teacher. She arrives looking totally Mod (white sheath dress, big shades, dangling cigarette), bored and out of place.

To many of the local folk, particularly the no-nonsense, quick-tempered Chiyo (Sumiko Fuji), the whole idea of bringing Hawaii to the mines is an affront to community dignity, tradition and mores. When the local girls Yoshimoto lures to a recruiting session see a scratchy film of hula and realize that it involves shaking their hips and exposing their midriffs, they blanch and take flight. The only survivors are the bubbly, stage-struck Sanae (Eri Tokunaga), her reluctant pal Kimiko (Yu Aoi), the geeky Shoko (Shoko Ikezu), a clerk in the mining company office, and the big, lumbering Sayuri (Shizuyo Yamazaki), whose eccentric, show-biz-loving father dragooned her into coming.

The girls are predictably hopeless and Madoka, who has taken the job under duress (from what, is to be revealed), barely goes through the motions of teaching them, while drinking and smoking herself into oblivion. But when the feisty Kimiko rebels, Madoka feels a stirring of conscience -- and ambition. She will turn this motley crew into hula dancers if it kills them, but first she has them relearn movement, from the feet up. (The hip shimmy comes later.)

Meanwhile, she has some lessons of her own to learn about local pride, taught by a drunken Yoshimoto (in an outburst that surprises him as much as her) and Kimiko's loutish, but good-hearted, older brother Yojiro (Etsushi Toyokawa), who becomes Madoka and Kimiko's defender against the wrath of his mother, the aforementioned Chiyo (that he also has his own designs on the sexy, stylish Madoka goes without saying). Finally, the girls who had first fled return -- and Madoka has the rough makings of a dance troupe.

This is same basic pattern as Shinobu Yaguchi's 2004 hit "Swing Girls," but where Yaguchi kept the tone consistently bubbly and light, Lee ladles on the dramatic complications, from the usual one of parental opposition to various setbacks and disasters that reflect the hardscrabble realities of life in mid-1960s Japan -- and at times feel dragged in from another movie.

In its last act, however, the film comes triumphantly to life as the girls strut their stuff, particularly Yu Aoi in a bring-down-the-house solo, with Lee's camera capturing every erotically explosive moment. Sayuri Yoshinaga was never like this. Forget Honolulu -- Joban, here I come.

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