Billed as an allegory to the issues facing modern Hawai’i, Christopher Kahunahana so expertly gives viewers an uncompromisingly honest look at human loss and kinship in his feature film debut, Waikiki.
Right from the beginning, Waikiki pulls back the curtain on the veneer that westerners have imposed on the island nation, that has rendered it a beautiful paradise, with no history or human problems to blot its gorgeous surroundings. Viewers are disabused of this false notion almost instantly, and compelled to look at the island nation through the lens of indigeneity, with all of the reality that this brings.
In Waikiki, we meet Kea (Danielle Zalopany), a hula dancer, Hawaiian language teacher, and bar hostess making every attempt to make ends meet to begin a new life. At every turn, her attempts to stand on her own two feet are thwarted. She’s unable to secure housing, requiring paper documentation of her income despite being paid in cash. The precariousness and impermanence of so much of her existence is illustrated by the fact that she lives her life solely in her van.
After a violent encounter with her abusive ex-boyfriend Branden (Jason Quinn), Kea hits Wo (Peter Shinkoda), a homeless man, with her van. Rather than leave him to die, she takes care of him herself, and together they begin a surreal journey as partners. They become vessels to illustrate to viewers the modern problems Hawai’i faces. Wo becomes a silent partner in Kea’s journey, a constant presence making himself known.
We follow Kea’s downward spiral as she begins to question reality around her, and past and present events blur so as to appear as one. Cinematographer Ryan Miyamoto deserves so much credit for adding such richness and depth to gorgeous camera shots that are seamlessly brought together to become an integral part of the story itself.
The loss of Kea’s van is felt at a deep emotional level, absolutely gutting viewers with the loss of essentially an entire world in which a human being lives their life. We as viewers can feel the spiritual and emotional disconnection, and what a jarring experience it is to have something so foundational ripped from one’s grasp. Whether or not one has sympathy for Kea as an individual or her situation (though there is more than enough sympathy to be had), it doesn’t take away from the fact that we root for her every step of the way to find what is lost.
It’s impossible to understand Waikiki removed from its cultural context, which Kahunahana so exquisitely threads into every frame of the movie. None of the characters can be removed from these contexts, with histories of abuse, economic disenfranchisement and violence that has come with the colonialism and statehood that has been imposed upon Hawai’i by the west. The disconnection from land, language, and people wreaks havoc on everyone through their lives. The violence the characters are subjected to in their daily lives is heart-wrenching to watch, but all too real for too many in the real world.
Nowhere is the link between the past and present more evident than in the character of Kea’s Tutu, played by Claire Parker Johnson, an actress with her own intriguing and compelling history, including representing Hawai’i in the Mrs. America competition of 1960. Tutu is always shown as just out of reach, just beyond the grasp of characters in the present day. Through Tutu, Kahunahana gracefully illustrates the necessity of our own connections with our past, and how wounds long forgotten need to be healed if there is to be any hope of moving forward.
Waikiki is a hauntingly beautiful work of art that is a worthy feature debut for a Hawaiian director who will no doubt have so many more stories to tell us. It’s allegorical storytelling at its best, and a fascinating character portrait of a woman caught between worlds. For anyone who appreciate the best of slice-of-life storytelling, Waikiki is a must-watch.
Reel Asian is a Toronto film festival with year-round programming highlighting Asian and Diaspora stories.