Film Review: Last Taxi Dance Swings, Connects and Frightens at the Same Time
The potent dramatization of Chinatown’s WWII role servicing the military via paid affection feels like a game changer in locally sourced film production. The 7 p.m. premiere at Hawai‘i Theatre Center also spikes First Friday’s punch Nov. 2 with an afterparty at Bethel Union.
Photos: Courtesy of Last Taxi Dance
Almost since the arrival of Captain Cook, Hawai‘i’s people have had to deal with being treated as commodities—as religious converts, plantation workers and, especially, as bodies deemed available for the pleasure and fantasies of settlers and colonists from both East and West. Nowhere were the unsavory terms of the so-called deal spelled out more starkly than in World War II, when the prospect of more than a million servicemen passing through O‘ahu led civil and military authorities to set up legal brothels in Chinatown that processed as many as 30,000 men a day.
A level below the cathouses were the dance halls, where, for tickets bought at the door, servicemen could find “a way to ward off loneliness,” as film director and screenwriter Brayden Yoder puts it. Both brothel and dance hall parceled out affection in the same unit of time—three minutes.
This is the world tackled in Last Taxi Dance. A local Kailua boy who went to war in Iraq after 9/11 and came back determined to become a filmmaker, Yoder uses the same sort of artificial time limitation—a 15-minute short film—to brilliant advantage to compress, heighten and, through a swirl of dancing, create images of beauty and humanity in the midst of a transactional environment.
“See the Vice Squad/get convictions/prostitution/easy meat,” sings Mahea, a torchy Native Hawaiian dance hall singer as the hapa jazz quintet behind her keeps up a discordantly jaunty beat. Clustered below the dead-eyed, impassive-aggressive beauty, played by the remarkable Danielle Zalopany, matched pairs of white-suited haole sailors and darker-hued women in bright tropical dresses swing tight circles, the latter pantomiming having a great time.
For a dollar a dance. A short one, which any suitor with a string of tickets can interrupt.
It’s 1945. The officially sanctioned and regulated Chinatown brothels are now shuttered, and the taxi dancers are the only sanctioned human touch allowed the thousands of sailors and soldiers still crowding O‘ahu. Confined to Chinatown, the dance halls like Club Paradise, and the dancers like Mahea and fellow part-Hawaiian Helen (a sassy, more cynically accommodating Cyndi Mayo), serve up three-minute illusions of romance and courtship to men who range from the innocent to the dangerous.
“Soldier” is one of the latter, and his appearance at Club Paradise after everyone but Mahea has gone home sets the claustrophobic scene. Max Holtz pulls off a brave and affecting performance as this menacing but vulnerable war hero who’s lost his way back into normal life, due to trauma and injuries. To him, Mahea has it easy and is, he says, free, while Mahea can barely control her contempt at his violation of her private time and space, an extension of his colonialist and white male privilege.
Both are right and both, it turns out, have more to offer and to say, in words and body language and expressions. Their tense minuet (well, slow dance) includes a couple of major tone shifts that catch the viewer off guard and raise the emotional stakes far above what one would expect in a 900-second drama.
In fact, Last Taxi Dance vaults off the big screen thanks to the performances of Zalopany and Holtz. They play big, like stars of the 1940s. For Zalopany, the Kumu Kahua mainstay, this is a breakout year; she’s in four 2018 films, including the forthcoming feature Waikīkī. The camera loves her face but it’s her mastery of subtly portrayed emotions that allows Yoder’s themes to occur to us spontaneously. Her nonverbal chops make his spare, cutting dialogue all the more effective.
Embracing the seemingly thankless role as the pale-faced heavy and turning the audience expectations around is the triumph in Holtz’s performance. He’s appeared on stage opposite Zalopany—and was her recommendation to Yoder for the role—and has been a player with The Actors’ Group. But in his close-ups, in counterpoint to Zalopany, he summons a subtle spectrum of emotions, shading from anguish to wistfulness to resentment and nihilism.
The film gives its actors what feels like a once-in-a-Hawai‘i-lifetime platform, coupled with a Hollywood level of production thanks to contributions from what seems like the entire local filmmaking community. The vital choreography is by Ahnya Chang and the cinematography by Chapin Hall. You can see and feel the natural exuberance of the dancers—who can’t help but enjoy themselves, even if it’s for tickets—and the moody noir Chinatown ambiance that suffuses every shot. (The entire performance was filmed in one marathon night in the old Indigo restaurant space, donated by the landlord, and another film sponsor, the Hawai‘i Theatre Center.)
Yoder’s 15-minute short, seed-funded and distributed by Pacific Islanders in Communications, and brought to the screen by executive producer Ciara Leina‘ala Lacy and producers Robert Bates, Concepcion Alicino and Yoder, would seem to have the distinction of being the first locally sourced, produced and acted on the topic. But Last Taxi Dance is not the first film to explore the extraordinary and repellent story of Honolulu’s sex trade. In addition to a number of titillating South Seas romances in the 1920s and early ’30s, filmed before the Hays Code imposed a moral code on Hollywood productions, a serious treatment surfaced in The Revolt of Mamie Stover, a still-shocking (even for today, let alone 1956) film by Raoul Walsh made from William Bradford Huie’s 1951 novel.
What Yoder zeroes in on is an uneasy conundrum. The taxi dancers formed a fragile bridge of humanity to complete strangers who might not return, or return damaged, from the war. In return, taxi dancing provided a more interesting and materially comfortable life, perhaps even a way out for some of the women—who were not, after all, prostitutes.
The subject would seem to pack a real punch for many Hawai‘i residents today. While attending the shooting and talking later to cast members, and then others, including my wife, whose grandparents worked in Chinatown during the war, I found it fascinating to see how the story sparked long-repressed conversations between generations about the WWII period, including not a few of the “what did you do in the war, Auntie?” variety. The film’s underlying tension extends to those working in the tourist industry today and, of course, to the #MeToo movement.
To sum up: Last Taxi Dance is the rare film that combines the sensual all-enveloping magic of the medium with intellectual and storytelling rigor, so successfully acted and executed you could loop its 15-minute length for an hour and not get tired of the faces of its remarkable cast, its reincarnation of Honolulu’s Chinatown in 1945 or its toe-tapping, nonstop music.
The film missed its first premiere the evening Hurricane Lane was due in town. But we can catch the premiere-feeling screening at 7 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 2 at the Hawai‘i Theatre Center, followed by a behind-the-scenes film and a discussion with Yoder and Zalopany moderated by yours truly—then by an after-party at Bethel Union for a small supplement to your $20 ticket (that you should purchase online).
Hawai‘i Theatre Center, 1130 Bethel St., hawaiitheatre.com