Launched in 1981 by Jeannette Paulson Hereniko, the Hawaii International Film Festival (HIFF) was the first film festival in the United States to focus on films from the Asia-Pacific region. Being a bridge between East and West is still its mission, but HIFF now has plenty of company around the world.
What keeps it a stand-out is the diversity of its audience and the uniqueness of its lineup, as I rediscovered at its 37th edition held from Nov. 2 to 12 on Oahu and from Nov. 16 to 19 on the Big Island and Kauai.
With all but a few Oahu screenings held at Regal Dole Cannery Stadium, a multiplex far from the standard tourist route, the audiences were mostly locals of all ages and backgrounds, from kids coming to see the Hiromasa Yonebayashi anime “Mary and the Witch’s Flower” to elderly nisei, including World War II veterans, at a screening of the documentary “Proof of Loyalty: Kazuo Yamane and the Nisei Soldiers of Hawaii.”
A member of the fabled all-nisei 100th Infantry Battalion, Yamane was plucked from the ranks for his superior Japanese skills (he had studied at Waseda University) and, as an intelligence officer, uncovered information in captured Japanese military documents that, as his Legion of Merit citation stated, “profoundly influenced the successful outcome of the war.” Not the sort of story you will see on NHK, but fascinating nonetheless.
Another outstanding made-in-Hawaii documentary was Gemma Cubero del Barrio’s “Ottomaticake.” Her title hero, the single-named Otto, is a former punk rocker who has been making cheesecakes in Honolulu for the past 25 years. An affectionate portrait of an unconventional individualist, the film is also a disturbing examination how drugs and crime have impacted Otto and other small-business owners in downtown Honolulu, driving some to the wall. But his cheesecake, as I discovered at a lunch sponsored by NETPAC (Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema), is worth traveling — and fighting — for.
“I’ve made every cake with this right hand — no machines,” Otto himself told me proudly at an HIFF party. I hope he’s still making them when I return.
The festival also screened many films from Japan and elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific region, with Masato Harada (“Sekigahara”), Naoko Ogigami (“Close-Knit”) and Giddens Ko (“Mon Mon Mon Monsters”) among the directors present.
My own favorite at this year’s HIFF, however, was Atsuko Hirayanagi’s “Oh Lucy!” Based on Hirayanagi’s prize-winning short, the film follows a middle-aged office worker (Shinobu Terajima) who falls for her handsome English teacher (Josh Hartnett). It’s a culture-clash comedy that’s smart and funny despite a premise that sounds like a cliche and gags that ought to be wince-inducing. Terajima, Hartnett and the rest of the cast generate laughs informed by the pains and idiocies of real life.
So “mahalo” to HIFF for a lineup full of discoveries. And “aloha” until next year.