Going to a film festival as a member of a jury is different to going as a critic: You get better treatment for one thing. As the chairman of the jury for the Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema (NETPAC) Award at the Hawaii International Film Festival (Nov. 7-17), I stayed at a five-star hotel on Waikiki Beach. Walking in, I never wanted to leave — not the right mindset for someone expected to attend the festival, rather than attend to the excellent Hawaiian coffee served by the hotel pool.
But I stirred off my lounge chair to the Regal Dole Cannery — a mall multiplex that was the main festival venue — where I sampled the event’s eclectic lineup, with its focus on the Asia-Pacific region.
Among the Japanese films screened was “37 Seconds,” the first feature from Hikari (formerly Mitsuyo Miyazaki). Recipient of the Kau Ka Hoku Filmmaker Award, the festival’s main prize, it centers on a young manga artist (Mei Kayama) who doesn’t let her cerebral palsy keep her from exploring her creativity, her sexuality and the world. Shot with a docudrama-like realism, the film is a stirring tale of human potential.
The winner of our award for an emerging Asian filmmaker was “Another Child,” Korean actor and director Kim Yoon-seok’s debut feature about two teenage girls who are high school classmates — and who discover that the father of one is having an affair with the single mother of the other. When the mother becomes pregnant she decides to have her lover’s child, despite her daughter’s strenuous objections. The opening scenes hint at comedy, but Kim, a veteran film star with a three-decade career, goes instead for explosive, all-in drama as the girls wrestle with their feelings about their cheating parents and each other. The performances of his young actors, Kim Hye-jun and Park Se-jin, are outstanding in their focus and realism.
I also quite liked “For My Father’s Kingdom,” New Zealand filmmaker Vea Mafile’o’s intimately revealing documentary about her native Tongan father, who left his white New Zealand wife and their children long ago to live in Tonga and contribute large chunks of his income to his church. In interviews, the left-behind siblings frankly express their puzzlement and disappointment at his priorities, but when they reunite with their father in Tonga they — and we — gain a clearer, more sympathetic understanding of his strong ties to church and community, deeply rooted in traditional Tongan culture.
Similarly revelatory was the Pacific Showcase Shorts program. One favorite was “Our Atoll Speaks,” Gemma Cubero del Barrio’s documentary about the people of Pukapuka, a coral atoll in the Cook Islands. Counterposed with idyllic shots of lush vegetation and children frolicking in the surf is an in-depth portrait of a community in crisis as rising sea levels threaten its existence. The director and her crew spent months filming with the islanders, and their dedication shows.
Another was “Ta Moko — Behind the Tattooed Face,” Mick Andrews and David Atkinson’s documentary short about Maori face tattoos or ta moko. It shows a Maori man and woman getting their first ta moko — a tradition once in danger of extinction — with members of their community looking on and lending support. To this outsider, the process looks painful, but when it is finished the newly tattooed rise up looking not just transformed but reborn, a moment that is intense and mysterious. A moment that exemplifies why, in its 39th edition, the Hawaii International Film Festival is still different and special.