Waikiki explores the underbelly of what keeps this paradise dream afloat
Paradise is truly more of an idea than a reality. It is a subjective state of mind filled with rest and fun, and we attach it to a location. Growing up, I perceived the state of Hawaii as always being that exotic faraway place where people drink rum out of coconuts while lounging on the beach. The film Waikiki explores the underbelly of what keeps this paradise dream afloat. This is a sad and crushing film. It’s only 77 minutes long, which is long enough to rip away at the facade and show that heaven on earth is never what it seems.
Many indie filmmakers shooting their first feature lean in on their roots. I’m reminded of Kevin Smith’s Clerks, George Miller’s Mad Max or John Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood in this regard. The director here is Christopher Kahunahana, and he not only shares the aforementioned directors’ penchant for shooting on home turf, he is also the first native Hawaiian to write, produce and direct a film. That being said, he puts a lot of themes and tones into this film, and they don’t always pay off. I feel for a debut there is an expectation for a director to play the notes correctly. But to play the music, there needs to be less confusion and more clarity. All that aside, given the Kickstarter funds and can-do-attitude on display, Kahunahana still makes an interesting and unique presentation. He is on course to deliver bigger and better stories in the years to come.
Beautiful sunrises across lush horizons fill the background in this rather upsetting story. Waikiki is about survival and abuse, and it’s the last picture of Hawaii I had in my head. Surely it is understood that no matter what “fun and happy place” you go to there are people working tirelessly to keep the illusion running. Theme parks, cruise ships and resorts all depend on these unsung heroes. Waikiki, a neighborhood in Honolulu with its sweeping skyscrapers and tourist excursions, is such a place.
Kea (Danielle Zalopany), a beautiful young native woman, has to work multiple jobs to survive. These jobs vary as well, from a Hawaiian teacher, to hula girl, to nightclub hostess. She wades through an abusive relationship. She lives in a van and bathes at the beachside shower stalls. After an explosive fight with her boyfriend, Brandon (Jason Quinn), she makes a getaway in her van. But with one problem avoided, another surfaces: She hits a homeless man with her vehicle. Feeling an obligation to look after him, she puts him in the passenger seat. Despite her abusive boyfriend telling her on the phone to just drive off and leave, she can’t seem to do it. Even with all the short straws she has pulled, she still has a moral compass.
The man she struck is named Wo (Peter Shinkoda) and he doesn’t say much. He becomes the punching bag for Kea’s verbal assaults -- we’re talking major projecting here. Kea runs around with Wo the next day, unsure of what to do with him. She works a night shift at a bar to come back to her van missing and Wo standing by, having done nothing to help. In turn, Wo is also a victim of her physical assaults.
The rest of the film is Kea looking for her van, looking for an actual place to live (she’s been repeatedly denied living spaces, despite having the money) and looking for her peace -- all with Wo in tow. They even develop a kinship. The film ends with a revelation that is frankly very telegraphed. But even though I saw the “twist” coming, it plays well into the greater scope of the story. The problem was that there were a lot of plot lines that didn’t receive closure. Deliberate or not, it was not handled in a convincing way and came off a bit messy.
ACTING | CHARACTERS | DIALOGUE:
There are not many characters at play here. But there doesn’t need to be either. This is Kea’s story and a lot of that is internal and psychological. The boyfriend played by Jason Quinn is effective at being a horrible gaslighting abomination of a human being. The character of Wo isn’t meant to do much. In many ways, Wo is this totem that Kea has to carry around. To divulge further would wander into spoiler territory. There are a lot of cultural and societal themes that Waikiki explores such as gentrification, violence and homelessness. The character of Kea is burdened to carry these all. In one scene, her breaking point is on display. Danielle Zalopany truly delivers where it matters the most. There is a lovely amount of native dialogue sprinkled throughout the film as well, further transplanting the viewer.
VISUAL EFFECTS | MAKEUP | DESIGN:
While there aren’t many visual effects or make up items to comment on (with the exception of a nasty black eye), there are plenty of eye-popping scenes provided. After all, this was set in what many people consider paradise. Kahunahana fills the gaps between scenes with wide establishing shots of jungles, beaches and cityscapes. The little things in these scenes stood out to me the most. Ever sweeping shot has an airplane, or a cruise ship or a mob of tourists. This further emphasizes the disconnection between the holiday traveling group and the native worker bees who’ve probably never experienced such a thing.
MUSIC | SCORE | SOUND DESIGN:
There is a bit of folk, psychedelic and calming tones of music weaved throughout Waikiki. This mix is nice and suitable. The musical selections parallel Kea’s journey, further allowing us to walk with her as she goes through certain hell. The traditional native music pieces tie the real Hawaiian culture well. So much that some parts felt a bit like a travel ad, not that I was complaining. Technically speaking, other aspects of sound design work well enough. The beginning of the film did have some mixing issues between clean dialogue and background sound. I’m willing to let that go in lieu of the limited budget.
This is a film that I wasn't sure what to make of when I saw the trailer. After seeing the film, I’m still not too sure what to do with it now. It is a film that removes the illusion of paradise. But that isn’t all. It signifies that even in a place that is otherwise deemed a dream to live in, it doesn’t deny the evils of the world. I feel Kea’s character is a mouthpiece for any Hawaiian native that has felt persecuted against or subjected to gentrification. This is because she lives in a place that is more catered to care for outside guests and visitors with lots of money. Kea is stuck on an island, working multiple jobs for a city that doesn’t care about her. Her boyfriend perpetuates her feelings of worthlessness and isolation. Her eventual breakdown is earned.
I didn’t like everything in this film. I walked away with a lot of confusion about some parts. It felt there were scenes that needed to be added that just weren’t filmed. Waikiki asks many questions, but it never finds all the answers.