Review: Banzai to 'Hula Girls'

A Japanese film by an ethnic Korean director about Hawaii’s native dance form serving as the instrument of economic salvation in a desolate mining town — just a curiosity?
Not “Hula Girls,” a widely celebrated film that premieres here today in San Francisco’s 4 Star Theater and San Jose’s Camera 12.

Acclaim includes success at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, being Japan’s official entry to the 2007 Academy Awards, and four awards at the tough Japanese Academy Awards competition last year — Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress.

Based on a true story, “Hula Girls” is about the plight of an impoverished town in Northern Japan, where the country’s largest coal mine closed its gates, creating mass unemployment. This happened in 1965, and the out-of-the-box idea to save the town was a plan to create a Hawaiian theme park.

Your amazement at that is minuscule against the disbelief among the town’s residents.

Lack of the right weather, flora, fauna and culture was not quite as daunting as the shortage of dancers for the main-attraction-to-be: a big hula show.

In fact, the miners didn’t even know what on earth this “hula” thing was, but they didn’t reckon with the passion and ambition of young Kimiko (Yu Aoi), whose sudden purpose in life is to be just such a dancer.

Led, berated, supported by an instructor invited from Tokyo (Yasuko Matsuyuki, veteran of two dozen Japanese TV shows), Kimiko and her friends and rivals are whipped into a credible dance troupe — but do not expect just a variation on “Shall We Dance.”

This is a far grittier and more realistic film, although in the end as “uplifting” as “Dance,” meaning the original Japanese version (certainly not the U.S. remake).

Background stories of the principals, especially of the dance instructor lend complexity and richness to what could have been a thin, predictable march to a happy ending.

CREDITS

Hula Girls

* * *

Starring Yasuko Matsuyuki, Etsushi Toyokawa, Yu Aoi, Shizuyo Yamazaki, Ittoku Kishibe, Sumiko Fuji

Written by Sang-il Lee, Daisuke Habara

Directed by Sang-il Lee

Not rated

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