HIFF highlights


POSTED: Friday, October 09, 2009


Hong Kong Cinema (Hawaii premiere)

Screens at 3:45 p.m. Oct. 17 and 12:30 p.m. Oct. 18


Ip Man is an important figure in kung fu history, but change the name of this film's protagonist to that of a fictional character, say, Foo Ling Yu, and the plot assays out as just another formula martial arts yarn.

Ip Man lives a life of leisure; he declines to accept disciples but is known to be the top practitioner of kung fu in the area. When his property is confiscated by the Japanese, he must work as a manual laborer to support his wife and son.

A Japanese commander, Gen. Miura, sets up a facility where Chinese martial artists fight Japanese martial artists. When a Chinese fighter wins, he receives a bag of rice (a commodity worth more than gold in wartime China). So Ip Man goes to Miura's arena, fights 10 Japanese at once and beats them all, but takes only one bag of rice and leaves without giving his name.

When strangers return to extort money from Ip Man's friend, he beats them. When Miura asks Ip Man to teach his men, he refuses and challenges Miura to a public duel. Guess who wins?

Little of this has anything to do with the real-life accomplishments of Ip Man.

— John Berger, Star-Bulletin



Halekulani Golden Orchid Award Nominee (international premiere)

Screens at 8:30 p.m. Oct. 19 and 2:30 p.m. Oct. 21


Indiana Jones was never like this. Ana Agabin's modest “;24K”; follows a group of goofy treasure hunters in their search for gold in the wilds of Ilocos Sur. There's an ongoing legend in the Philippines that Japanese general Tomoyuki Yamashita stashed some stolen gold during the war, and that whatever Ferdinand Marcos didn't recover is still up in the mountains somewhere.

But where? Rumors, lost maps and vague signs in the rocks help point the way, but what really gets the adventurers off their duffs is an entrails reading off a freshly killed chicken — a little old lady seer beats the animal to death in the first scene.

The quintet of goofballs seem ill prepared for the actual sleuthing and hard work of treasure hunting. Once in the mountains — after whining about not being able to drive into the site — they dig until the beer runs out. That's the sort of thing that constitutes a crisis here.

It's also interesting to see how Filipinos isolated in the countryside kowtow to the military, who show up at inopportune times and provide the only whiff of danger in the movie.

“;24K”; is mostly charming and meandering and observational about the dynamics of camaraderie, but then right at the end it takes a sudden, off-road swerve into mysterious melodrama and then simply quits. Although the last couple of scenes don't feel connected to the rest of the film, they're the only sequences that make “;24K”; memorable.

You take treasure where you find it, I guess.

— Burl Burlingame, Star-Bulletin


'Ninoy & the Rise of People Power'

Halekulani Golden Orchid Award Nominee (World premiere)

Screens at noon Oct. 18 and 4:30 p.m. Oct. 21


The life and violent death of Benigno S. “;Ninoy”; Aquino Jr. seems so much a matter of public record that — barring a confession from those who directed his assassination — there seems to be little more to say. On the other hand, his story should never be forgotten, and this 58-minute documentary provides valuable insights into his fatal decision to return to the Philippines in 1983.

The presentation is straight-forward. Archival footage and “;talking heads”; tell the story. Aquino came from a family of patriots and rocketed upward in the constellations of power in the '50s and '60s — as mayor at 23, vice-governor at 27, governor at 29 and senator at 35. He seemed destined to become president, and was one of the first to be imprisoned when Marcos declared martial law in 1972.

Aquino spent more than seven years in prison (most of it in solitary confinement). The film suggests it was years in solitary that changed him from an ambitious politician to “;someone willing to do God's work.”; That could explain his fatal decision to return to the Philippines and put his life on the line in the struggle to end martial law.

Non-violent protest can be successful only in certain political contexts. The posthumous triumph of Ninoy over Marcos marks one such victory.

— John Berger, Star-Bulletin


'John Rabe'

Halekulani Golden Orchid Award Nominee (U.S. premiere)

Screens at 12:45 p.m. Oct. 18 and 19


John Rabe was one of those almost-known heroes of the prewar years. A German businessman — and Nazi functionary — in Nanking when the imperial Japanese army invaded in 1937, he is credited with saving as many as 200,000 Chinese civilians.

Rabe died penniless in Germany after the war, and his exploits were not really known until serious scholarship about the “;Rape of Nanking”; stirred in the 1970s. Today he's known as the Oskar Schindler of China, a hero to the Chinese — who sent him packages of food in Germany.

“;John Rabe”; is a serious, large-budget treatment of Rabe's exploits and a moving, terrific film about trying to maintain one's decency amidst horrors. As portrayed by Ulrich Tukur, Rabe is somewhat of a prickly, no-nonsense manager whose attitude toward his Chinese employees is briskly amused condescension. He's certainly no saint, as American doctor Robert Wilson (Steve Buscemi) often reminds him.

The brutal Japanese invasion changes him, although his first instinct is to flee. Director/writer Florian Gallenberger pulls no punches in depicting Nanking's documented horrors (including infamous head-chopping contests between Japanese officers), although the USS Panay is depicted, oddly, as an ocean liner.

It is also decidedly odd to see the Nazi flag used as a symbol of shelter, as the movie examines the symbology and mythology of the German people in wartime. But it is brilliant in its execution and worthy of long debate and discussion — although in Japan it probably won't be.

— Burl Burlingame, Star-Bulletin


'Mary & Max'

World Cinema (Hawaii premiere)

Screens at 4:15 p.m. Oct. 19 and 1 p.m. Oct. 20


Covering topics too sophisticated and dark for a family audience, the claymation film that opened this year's Sundance Film Festival traces an unlikely, long-running and sometimes tumultuous pen-pal relationship between Mary Dinkle, an isolated 8-year-old Australian girl, and Max Horowitz, a struggling 44-year-old New Yorker with Asperger's syndrome.

“;Max always wanted a friend who wasn't invisible, a pet or a rubber figurine,”; the narrator explains. “;He knew nothing of love. It was as foreign to him as scuba diving.”;

Halfway around the world, Mary struggles with her “;wobbly”; mother (a painfully amusing drunken caricature), her absent father and her own friendless existence. Over the years, they reveal details about their wildly imperfect lives and explore the true meaning of friendship through their own shortcomings and good intentions.

With meticulously detailed creations and brilliant voice work from Toni Collette and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, “;Mary & Max”; touches on some tough topics with hilarious deadpan humor. The result is an unexpectedly touching film.

— Katherine Nicholas, Star-Bulletin


'The Real Shaolin'

New Chinese Cinema (Hawaii premiere)

Screens at 9 p.m. Oct. 16 and 8:45 p.m. Oct. 20


On its surface, “;The Real Shaolin”; is a documentary about four disparate people who sacrifice everything — including personal freedom — to study martial arts in China. All are drawn by the mythology of the Shaolin temple, the legendary birthplace of kung fu and Zen Buddhism, brought to life for the masses in Jet Li's classic kung fu movie “;The Shaolin Temple.”;

Aside from mesmerizing fighting and performance sequences, the film is deeply affecting. We get to know a 9-year-old Chinese boy, abandoned by his parents and adopted by a Shaolin monk. He's eventually sent to live with a farmer who teaches him Iron Body qigong and often beats him.

The film also features a 29-year old Frenchman searching for enlightenment, determined to become a Shaolin monk and struggling with disillusionment in the desolate surroundings; a 19-year-old American who wants to become a kung fu master, yet finds himself painfully isolated in foreign country where he's not especially welcome; and the 19-year-old son of poor farmers who becomes a student at the largest martial arts school in the world and knows his only chance for a better life is to become a champion fighter.

These personal stories elevate “;The Real Shaolin”; to another level. The young men share aspects of their journeys with honest and touching revelations, especially when coarse reality interferes with their dreams. These quiet scenes are just as riveting as the physical action.

— Katherine Nichols, Star-Bulletin


'9500 Liberty'

Reel Life (Hawaii premiere)

Screens at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 20 and 1:15 p.m. Oct. 23


Oahu-born filmmaker Eric Byler left the Los Angeles indie film scene for his parents' home region of Prince William County in northern Virginia and landed smack dab in the middle of a volatile sociopolitical situation revolving around racial profiling.

Some of the majority white conservative community were fearful and suspicious of Latino immigrants, who were further vilified by the ravings of a blogger trying to raise his own profile with the national Republican Party. Things came to a head in 2007 when a Board of Supervisors policy went into effect, requiring police to check the immigration status of “;suspicious”; drivers during random vehicle checks.

Byler and filmmaking partner Annabel Park have made an engrossing activist documentary that includes their own involvement in the heated dialogue, first posting footage on YouTube of their ongoing work (which helped get the issue attention in Washington, D.C.) and then meeting with all parties concerned before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

It all boiled down to money, ironically, when the racist rhetoric was shot down when a request for increased police funding was rejected. Fearful immigrants had already moved, taking with them the finances that helped the now-plummeting local economy.

The events documented in “;9500 Liberty”; foreshadow the current level of uncivil political discourse in this country, and reminds us all that vigilance against racist paranoia must be maintained.

— Gary Chun, Star-Bulletin


'Love Exposure'

After Dark (Hawaii premiere)

Screens at 6:15 p.m. Oct. 22 and 3:30 p.m. Oct. 24


Sion Sono's entertainingly anarchic vision of adolescent angst and sexuality is definitely suited for adventurous late-night audiences, but because the darn thing clocks in around 3 1/2 hours, it's getting scheduled at earlier times at the festival.

While epic in length, “;Love Exposure”; is well paced. Both earnest and loopy in tone and content, the story revolves around teenagers Yu, Yoko and Koike, engagingly played by J-Pop star Takahiro Nishijima, Hikari Mitsushima and Sakura Ando, respectively.

The naive Yu is harassed by his Catholic priest of a father to repent for his sins. At first, with nothing to admit, Yu just lies.

One day, he tries to be sexually transgressive by snapping photos of panties worn by women walking on the street (that he's developed into a pervert with martial arts skills adds to the absurd subtext of the film). He's noticed by the nihilistic Koike, who we find out works for a bogus religious cult called the Zero Church.

In her attempt to ensnare Yu and his family into the cult, Koike blackmails Yu into dressing in drag. While in drag, he falls in love at first sight with Yoko, who in turn falls for Yu. The rest of the film focuses on the two love-struck teens as they try to figure out how love can be expressed in their mixed-up relationship.

For all the seeming perversity and occasional violent gore, “;Love Exposure”; doesn't come off as exploitative fare. It's not meant to be thought-provoking, but certainly makes for a fun ride.

— Gary Chun, Star-Bulletin


'Nada Sou Sou'

Spotlight on Okinawa (Hawaii premiere)

Screens at 10:15 a.m. Oct. 24 and 11 a.m. Oct. 25


To keep from crying, pinch your nose. A mother teaches this to her son; the son teaches it to his little sister. Does it work? By the end of this movie you'll be testing it on yourself.

“;Nada Sou Sou”; — “;Tears for You”; — is one for the waterworks as it explores its issues of family, loss, obligation and trust.

The beginning, though, is pure happiness. The relentlessly cheerful Yota is preparing for the arrival of his sister Kaoru, who's coming from their small island home to live with him as she attends high school in the city.

They became siblings when Yota's mom married Kaoru's dad. When Dad ran off and Mom died, Yota stepped up. The responsibility he feels for Kaoru trumps everything.

The happiness bubble bursts, however, with problems emotional, financial and physical, most of them raining hard upon Yota, the ultimate nice guy (and you know what happens to nice guys).

Satoshi Tsumabuki and Masami Nagasawa carry their roles with an emotional bounciness (happy/sad/happy/sad). They have their charms, as does the film overall, but it's really a soap opera in two-hour form.

You'll find it silly, then sappy, then overwrought. But somewhere in there you will need to pinch your nose.

— Betty Shimabukuro, Star-Bulletin


'A Village Called Versailles'

American Immigrant Filmmakers on Profile (Hawaii premiere)

Screens at 8:15 p.m. Oct. 17 and noon Oct. 20


When does a community feel like a home? When it's taken away.

The largest settlement of Vietnamese refugees in the United States is in the New Orleans suburb of Versailles Arms; close to the sea, humid and warm, it's a fairly isolated area where three decades of refugees have created an insular pocket of Vietnamese-ness. “;Home”; was always Vietnam — until Hurricane Katrina hit.

Versailles Arms was a community ignored by the federal government until public opinion forced the Bush administration to act. When the waters receded, residents commuted for hours to rebuild their homes, often without electricity or water.

And then a second calamity hit — the city of New Orleans decided to dump all its Katrina debris in Versailles Arms, creating a mountain of rubbish with the potential of poisoning the town's water table and nearby Bayou Sauvage Wildlife Refuge. Community leaders emerged, like Pastor Vien Nguyen of the Mary Queen of Vietnam Church, who noted “;there has been a switch. Before Katrina, home was Vietnam. After Katrina, home is here.”;

Filmmaker S. Leo Chiang's “;A Village Called Versailles”; is a broad, boosterish documentary that looks at the molding of this community, tempered by war and hurricane, and how it fits into the larger concept thought of as America. The ordinarily reserved Vietnamese ethnic enclave transforms into a Vietnamese-American community, using all the tools of democracy to make their voices heard.

— Burl Burlingame, Star-Bulletin


'Saving Luna'

Family Fest (Hawaii premiere)

Screens at 8 p.m. Oct. 17 (Sunset on the Beach) and 4:45 p.m. Oct. 22


It's hard to resist this 94-minute documentary about a lost Orca whale named Luna. His separation from his pod and penchant for befriending humans tug at all the heart strings.

With few exceptions, members of the community in Nootka Sound off Vancouver Island enjoy interacting with the seemingly tame killer whale. But when marine experts decide the interaction isn't good for the young whale's health and potential for survival, everything changes.

Interestingly, when Luna stops receiving attention, he starts behaving badly, damaging expensive motors on boats and angering some in the community. At one point, he starts fiddling with sea planes in the area, endangering his life.

A heated debate arises about the best course of action: Endless, unmonitored human attention? Total isolation? Captivity to keep him safe? Even the local Native American tribes get involved.

Filmmakers Suzanne Chisholm and her husband, Michael Parfit, surrender their objectivity by becoming involved in the crusade. But the breathtaking photography of Vancouver Island's West Coast and genuine love for this animal are simply captivating.

— Katherine Nichols, Star-Bulletin


'Fruit Fly'

American Indies (Hawaii premiere)

Screens at 4:45 p.m. Oct. 18 and 9:30 p.m. Oct. 19


Catchy tunes and colorful characters make “;Fruit Fly”; enjoyable. San Francisco filmmaker H.P. Mendoza's musical tale focuses on Bethesda, a Filipino-American girl whose performance art is centered on her search for her roots and her biological mother.

Bethesda moves into temporary housing with a handful of colorful struggling artists, including gay Windham, lesbians Karen and Sharon, and a troubled runaway named Jacob. Bethesda is accused of being a fruit fly, a straight woman who hangs out with gay men who are perceived as being non-threatening to relationship-shy women.

Some parts of the film are risque and may be shocking — it's a gay musical, after all. Although the gay banter can be over the top, the story touches on serious issues of intimacy and sexual identity.

Original tunes like “;Public Transit”; and “;Fag-Hag”; are entertaining and the film itself is visually rich. With a perfect blend of musical numbers and witty dialog, it's the kind of movie that leaves you feeling good at the end — with a subtle reminder that life is a continual work in progress.

— Nancy Arcayna, Star-Bulletin