22 Can’t-Miss Movies at the 2017 Hawai‘i International Film Festival

With 160 flicks to choose from in 10 days, Nov. 2—12, there’s something for every taste—including a beefed-up slate of Made in Hawai‘i films.


It’s time to fall in love with movies again. The Hawai‘i International Film Festival is back in town, kicking off Nov. 2 with the eagerly anticipated anime Mary and the Witch’s Flower, and closing on Nov. 12 with Go For Broke, the origin story of the famed 442nd Regimental Combat Team. All told there are more than 160 films from 45 countries being screened, all but a couple at Dole Cannery. So silence your cell, settle in and sneak previews of anime, Oscar-bait indies, a full slate of Asian debuts, tasty food films and an impressive list of Island and Polynesian features and shorts.


As usual, there will be special Halekūlani awards for attending international stars: director Masato Harada (Career Achievement), actor Bill Pullman (Lifetime Achievement) and actor Simon Baker (Maverick), plus Pacific Islanders in Communications Trailblazer Taika Waititi of New Zealand (writer of an early draft of Moana, his first blockbuster, Thor: Ragnarok, opens Nov. 3). The juried competition this year has been reconfigured to showcase Made in Hawai‘i films and filmmakers. The Awards Gala is Nov. 10. With six features and nine shorts up for prizes, you know locals will be vocal in their support of our growing filmmaking industry.


The official opener, Nov. 2, is also sure to be a crowd-pleaser: Mary and the Witch’s Flower, anime by Academy Award-nominated director Hiromasa Yonebayashi and other Studio Ghibli veterans. The film adapts a beloved Mary Stewart story with charm and stunning graphic imagination.




The HIFF centerpiece film is Breath, directed by The Mentalist star Simon Baker, who’s also in attendance as the Halekūlani Maverick Award winner. Based on the classic surf novel by Aussie Tim Winton, the story is not one of your “golden boys and girls chasing rainbows and pro contracts from Quiksilver and Roxy”—instead, Baker plays grizzled big-wave gunner Sando, who lives with his disabled wife on a lonesome strand where surf pounds and death is a breath away. When two teenagers seek Sando out and are swept into the undertow of his messianic vision and family life, things get gnarly (Nov. 8 and 11).


Hearts will pound for the closing selection, Alexander Bocchieri’s Go For Broke: An Origin Story, the fruit of writer-producer Stacey Hayashi’s 16-year quest to interview the brave 442nd veterans. The film tells the story of the year after Pearl Harbor, when a group of young men mustered the strength—and the strategy—to upend official justifications for the injustices done to all Japanese-Americans. Though fictionalized, actual characters are central to the drama, which enjoys Hollywood-level production quality. The Nov. 12 event at Hawai‘i Theater Center is sold out, but a concurrent 8 p.m. Dole Cannery screening has been added.


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A highlight of the popular Eat.Drink.Film portion of the festival is Jimami Tofu, a joint Japan-Singapore effort by directors Jason Chan and Christian Lee (Nov. 9 and 11). A passion for the humble soy curd drives the plot, as an ambitious Singapore chef tracks his wayward wife back to her hometown in Okinawa. There he must prove his touch with tofu to win her back.



A documentary of another culinary obsessive, The Tea Explorer, finds Andrew Gregg following part-time Hawai‘i resident Jeff Fuchs. All Fuchs wants is a perfect cuppa. Well, after years of journeying, the Tea Horse Road takes him to the top of the world and an exuberant encounter with the ultimate tea culture (Nov. 6).


Notebook From My Mother, a portrait of Elan and her neighborhood banchan shop, poses a question familiar to many in Hawai‘i—who in the family will step up and learn Mama’s recipes, then carry on the tradition? You’ll want to go out for bulgogi after this one, from Sung-Ho Kim (Nov. 10 and 11).


Made in Hawai‘i

Not in Eat.Drink.Film but tender to Honolulu tastebuds is Ottomaticake, a documentary about Otto Cakes inspiration and founder, Scott McDonough. The punk avatar, scenester and courageous Chinatown antidrug crusader gets his cake and eats it, too, thanks to director Gemma Cubero Del Barrio (Nov. 7 and 10). 


Ottomaticake joins Go For Broke and four other films in competition. In previous years, the awards were open. This year, says new HIFF executive director Beckie Stocchetti, “we have restructured our entire competition program to focus entirely on our Made in Hawai‘i films. We realized we had a really strong slate of locally produced films. I think the time is now—we’re ready to make the next step.”


Like Go For Broke, Kuleana treats a local story to the kind of production values normally reserved for the stars of Tinseltown. Screening Nov. 3 and 5, it pits a rapacious Maui developer against Native Hawaiian Nohea and the developer’s own daughter, Kim. (This isn’t your grandfather’s Descendants, in other words.) Maui director Brian Kohne had a previous HIFF hit with Get a Job in 2011. 



SEE ALSO: The 8 Best Things To Do in November 2017


Out of State is a documentary about prisoners healing themselves through Native Hawaiian values, directed by Ciara Lacy (Nov. 4 and 6). Corridor Four, directed by Stephen Tringali, tells of a Wai‘anae-raised K-9 officer, Isaac Ho‘opi‘i, whose heroic efforts during rescue operations after 9/11’s Pentagon bombing don’t spare him from guilt over those he couldn’t save (Nov. 8 and 11). Proof of Loyalty: Kazuo Yamane and the Nisei Soldiers of Hawai‘i is a documentary by Seattle-area directors Lucy Ostrander and Don Sellers, whose output includes films about the Pacific Rim and Japanese-American experience, including Honor & Sacrifice: The Roy Matsumoto Story and Fumiko Hayashida: The Woman Behind the Symbol. It screens Nov. 7 and 10.


The Quirky, The Noir and The Cowboy

One of the joys of Asian cinema is knowing that, no matter how much wholesome is on the menu, quirk will be served. That said, Junk Head by Takahide Hori sounds like a must for fans of D.I.Y. animation, horror (think H.R. Giger, inspiration of those Alien sets) and stop-motion filmmaking (Nov. 4 and 7).



Similarly, everyone who associates sweetness and light with director Alexander Payne (The Descendants) may be intrigued to see him doing sci-fi in the Hawai‘i premiere of Downsizing, starring Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig. They play an earnest couple in an overpopulated future who choose getting smaller—a lot smaller—as a way to afford housing and help stem the crisis (Nov. 11). What could possibly go wrong?


Those who sneak their tabloid stories in the checkout line at Times will love the hot mess dished out in I, Tonya, a retelling of blue-collar skater Tonya Harding’s downfall (from her point of view, of course) via director Craig Gillespie (Nov. 5).


No festival is complete without runway-worthy clothes adorning killer bodies—or is it bodies who kill? Anyway, grab a front-row seat for The Villainess by Jung Byung-Gil (Nov. 11 and 12). For a glamour reality check, tour Manila’s red light district, home to three transgender women trying to actualize their dreams despite their surroundings, in the fictional but recognizable Those Long Haired Nights, directed by Gerardo Calagui (Nov. 4).



Another genre, the Western, gets a refresh in The Ballad of Lefty Brown, from director Jared Moshe. It stars Halekūlani Lifetime Awardee Bill Pullman as an overlooked but loyal sidekick who’s forced to pick up the pieces after the murder of his boss, a newly appointed senator in Montana (Nov. 11 and 12).


Battles, Buzz and Bebop

For those who prefer fights to flights of fancy, HIFF boasts a giant battlefield spectacular, Masato Harada’s Sekigahara. The never-told-because-too-complex tale is about the climactic clash in 1600 that finished the Warring States period and ushered in the Tokugawa shogunate (Nov. 9 and 12).


Oscar buzz attends Darkest Hour, with Gary Oldman giving a praised performance as Winston Churchill in those days just before Dunkirk (Nov. 5 and 9). And indie folk seem really into Columbus, with John Cho as the son of a famous architecture scholar taken ill in a tiny Indiana town known for its eccentric collection of modernist buildings. The slow-rolling romance between Cho and local architecture nerd Haley Lu Richardson lights up the screen (Nov. 11).


Everyone, not just technology fans, green romantics and STEM graduates, will thrill to Point of No Return, the story of the solar-powered airplane that circled the globe—with a lengthy stay in Hawai‘i due to battery damage suffered on its 120-hour flight from Japan to Kalaeloa (Nov. 5 and 9).


Finally, for jazz buffs and fans of disconcerting documentaries, I Called Him Morgan should fill the bill—a tale of a great young musical talent in the bebop era. If you like it dark and smoky, with hot horns, drug addiction and a love triangle that ends in murder, this is your drink (Nov. 5). And you can even hear the music of subject Lee Morgan performed live by trumpeter Eddie Henderson at Lewers Lounge (Nov. 3 and 4) before Sunday’s screening.


SEE ALSO: Murdered Jazz Legend Lee Morgan Honored with Music and a Documentary at HIFF


Tickets and flash passes are on sale online (hiff.org) and in person at the HIFF Box Office. All screenings are held at Dole Cannery unless otherwise noted. HIFF Box Office (Nov. 2—12), Regal Dole Cannery Stadium 18 & IMAX Foyer, 735 ‘Iwilei Road, (808) 447-0577.


HONOLULU is a media sponsor of the Hawai‘i International Film Festival.