With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013

With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013
With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013

Saturday, June 23, 2007

ACF 035: More on "Hula Girls"

Kimiko (actress Yu Aoi)

Since Hula Girls (Hula Garu) is about to be screened in several locales, I want to give it a well-deserved second look and to put out some additional thoughts and observations that I didn't include in my review in ACF 023.

Briefly, the film is based on the true story of Iwaki, a coal mining town along the coast and north of Tokyo. In the 1960s, as the Japan's coal industry floundered, the mining company turned to the town's hot springs, its only other natural resource, to create a Hawaii-themed spa. More than anything else, the success of this project depended on local women learning how to become hula dancers, something totally alien to them . Yu Aida portrays Kimiko, who came to be the star dancer and leader of the group.

While some locals supported the endeavor, most did not, at least not initially. The miners union was opposed because the spa was projected to produce far fewer jobs than were going to be lost as the mine operations diminished. Kimiko's widowed mother, works for the mining company and regards her daughter's participation as a betrayal.

Given the importance of traditional Japanese values of loyalty , it was incredibly brave for these women, almost all of them very young, not only to attempt something so foreign and challenging as hula dancing, but to do so in opposition to many family members, friends, and neighbors.

This comes across clear and strong in the film, but was also reinforced by director Sang-il Lee in a question and answer section after the screening I attended. In the film, the father of one of the dancers is fired and takes his family to a coal mining town further to the north, where there was still work. However, the mine there eventually failed and that town went bankrupt. The same fate likely would have befallen Iwaki had it not been for the success of the spa, which simply would not have occurred without the hula dancers. In short, Hula Girl power saved the town!

There are perhaps two or three places where the film borders on sentimentality. For example, in the scene when the dancer leaves with her family to go north, she and Kimiko keep calling out "See ya" to one another perhaps a bit too often. But this is a subjective call, and in any case does not seriously impact the high quality of the story telling.

Director Sang-il Lee is a 33 year old ethnic Korean who was born and raised in Japan. After graduating from college with a degree in economics, he attended the film school founded by Shohei Imamura. Hula Girls is his fifth film, and while it's a fascinating and solid offering overall, there are places where it's absolutely brilliant. Not wanting to give anything away, I'll just say there's one scene concerning a dancer, who's been mistreated by her father, that is absolutely harrowing. This smoothly transitions into a rather comical effort to bring the offender to justice.

Hula Girls gets a 3.5 out of 4 star ACF rating (very highly recommended).

Hula Girls
will be screened twice at the New York Asian Film Festival 2007. Click on the Subway Cinema link below for show times and further info.

The film's theatrical release will start Friday, July 13th, 2007, at the ImaginAsian, New York's premiere Asian American theater, and at the Facets Cinematheque in Chicago. It will subsequently open in Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Info about the screenings in these cities will be coming soon to the Hula Girls film website, link below.

Whether or not you get to see the film in a theater, make note that Viz Pictures, the live-action film affiliate of Viz Media LLC, is scheduled to release the DVD in November, 2007. AsianCineFest will try to provide you with an advance review of that release.

Hula Girls - Subway Cinema, Hula Girls film website, trailer (YouTube, no subtitles), IMDb
Sang-il Lee, director - IMDb
Yu Aoi, actress (Kimiko Tanikawa) - IMDb

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