Oct. 20--Hula is life for the main characters of "The Haumana," the directorial debut for Hawaii's own Keo Woolford and closing-night film for the Oahu portion of the 33rd Hawaii International Film Festival.
Anyone who belongs to a halau or knows a hula dancer, or has made the trip to the Big Island for the annual Merrie Monarch Hula Festival, will identify with the sentiment. Hawaiian culture continues to strengthen and flourish both at home and abroad, and films like this help illustrate how important it is for native voices to tell the stories of Hawaii from their own unique perspective.
Jonny Kealoha (Tui Asau) is a lounge performer in Waikiki who seems to enjoy booze and female tourists more than serving as a steward of his culture, all while wearing a cheesy, all-white outfit and gaudy red carnation lei. That all changes, however, when Jonny hears that Auntie Margaret (Marlene Sai), his revered kumu hula, has fallen gravely ill.
From her deathbed, Auntie Margaret asks Jonny to take on a teaching role with a group of high school boys set to participate in the upcoming Royal Hula Festival. His decision to accept the position comes as much of a shock to his new haumana, or students, as it does to Jonny, who finds himself practicing with an ipu in his Waikiki dressing room between sets.
The rest of "The Haumana" is an enjoyable re-creation of the classic underdog story line that finds the protagonists beaten down and dealt setback after setback. How will they react? Will the challenges prove to be too much to overcome?
Part of the fun is watching what Woolford does, character-wise, with each of Jonny's haumana. There's the jock who throws blows when someone makes fun of his hula brothers. There's the "down-low dancer," still working up the courage to tell his parents he loves hula. Another member of the halau struggles nearly the entire film trying to reconcile his Christian faith with hula's ancient Hawaiian influences.
Auntie Napua (Mary Pa'alani) will have viewers nodding in recognition at the disapproving glares she gives both Jonny and his students whenever they do something wrong. And Kelly Hu's tita-rific performance as Jonny's favorite bartender promises to elicit chuckles throughout the 95-minute film.
While some of the dialogue feels a little too preachy at times -- you can really tell when Woolford is trying to drive home some of his more important messages -- "The Haumana" is still a fun way to stimulate conversation among local residents and familiarize outsiders with Hawaiian culture.
Another bonus is the soundtrack. Woolford, who comes from a hula background, did a fantastic job with George "Geebz" Del Barrio to produce a score that showcases contributions by established Hawaiian recording artists Robert Cazimero and Lehua Kalima, among others. The music, along with all the beautiful scenic footage shot around Oahu, makes it much easier to forgive any shortcomings in the story and just enjoy the cinematic ride "The Haumana" provides.
Note: Neighbor island screenings are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Hilo Palace Theater; 7 p.m. Thursday at Waimea Theater, Kauai; and 6:30 p.m. Saturday at St. Regis Princeville Resort.
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