Cheat sheet: 12 must-see films at HIFF

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The 37th edition of the Hawaii International Film Festival presented by Halekulani begins tomorrow and runs through Nov. 12 at the Regal Dole Cannery Stadium 16. And I know I say this every year, but man, the film lineup looks absolutely incredible. Where else can you see such a diverse array of films from all over the world? 

Navigating your way through 160 films from 45 countries can be overwhelming, so allow me to provide you with a “cheat sheet” of 12 MUST SEE films this year.

More information on the films, tickets and venues can be found at


#StarringJohnCho is a social movement inspired by Hollywood’s rampant whitewashing resulting in a serious lack of leading roles for Asian-American actors. Those behind the movement thought what if John Cho was the leading man in more Hollywood films? Well, HIFF presents not one, but two films starring the talented actor.

“Gemini” (USA)

“Gemini” is a stylish murder mystery where John Cho plays the leading detective tracking down the murderer of a Hollywood starlet. Neo-noir artistry brings the city of Los Angeles front and center and calls back to films such as “Mulholland Drive” while the flashy neon settings and soundtrack induce nostalgia for ’80s crime flicks. The plot ultimately trips over itself in its attempt to prove its point but this is definitely a case where style successfully rules over substance.



“Columbus” (USA)

Remember when movies were about real people and their stories instead of superheroes and CGI? “Columbus” is the tale of a man who tends to his ill father in a small town and meets a girl with whom he shares a common bond. John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson make a magnetic couple in this quiet film about two people making a beautiful personal connection.



Action Films

It’s like no one even bothers making a decent action movie anymore. No one outside Asia, that is. While the rest of the world relies more and more on special effects, stunt doubles and choppy editing, Asia continues to create some of the most innovative actions films.

“Paradox” (Hong Kong)

Directed by Wilson Yip (“Ip Man”, “SPL”), choreographed by the legendary Sammo Hung and starring Tony Jaa (“Ong Bak”)? Excuse me while I wipe the drool from my chin. That is an action trifecta that cannot go wrong and you can bet that I already have my tickets.



“The Villainess” (South Korea)

Female action stars are all the rage now but I challenge any actress to perform the moves that Kim Ok Vin pulls off in “The Villainess.” Definitely inspired by “La Femme Nikita,” Kim plays a convict assigned to train with an elite force. All she needs to do is give the agency 10 years of her life and she is a free woman. Of course it’s never that simple. A pregnancy and a blast from her past will easily complicate matters, but “The Villainess” will bombard you with some of the craziest, goriest action you’ve seen in recent years.



Locally Made

You gotta credit HIFF for providing opportunities for talented local filmmakers to display their skills. Here’s two locally made films that I’m really looking forward to.


I must admit, I’m intrigued by this film because I just love the guy’s cheesecake. But Otto’s story goes beyond his extraordinary baking skills. He’s been in the news many times over the years as he’s had to deal with drugs and crime happening literally at his front door. I’d love the opportunity to hear his side of the story and how he’s overcome such immense challenges.


A gorgeously shot film about a mystery on Maui in the 1970s. Starring lots of familiar local faces, “Kuleana” teaches about responsibility and the strong ties between the land and the people.



Fantastic Asia

Asians make some crazy ass movies. No doubt. And HIFF never fails to please audiences looking for something out of the mainstream.

“Mon Mon Mon Monsters” (Taiwan)

“Mon Mon Mon Monsters” is a really twisted horror flick, and I mean that in the best possible way. This film horrified me not only with its scares and gore, but also with its social commentary on bullying and peer pressure. A bunch of high school punks take a young zombie child prisoner, after which you quickly realize who the true monsters are. This film is a must watch. And if you’re as curious as I am as to what kind of mind could make such a film, you’re in luck because director Giddons Ko will be at the first screening for a Q&A.



“Survival Family” (Japan)

Imagine a world with no power. No cell phones. No computers. No internet. Basic life function is turned upside-down and essentials like food and water are at a premium. This black comedy from Japan explores how a dysfunctional family deals with such a crisis. It looks freaking hilarious.



American indies

Hollywood is so focused on big budget tentpole franchises that it’s refreshing to watch small independent films that tell engaging, relatable human stories. Here are two independent films that captured my eye.

“Stand Up Man”

Okay, so technically this is a Canadian film. A struggling standup comedian is dealing with marriage and a newborn baby while taking over his parent’s restaurant. As if things weren’t difficult enough, his teenage cousin from Korea comes to stay with him in the small town of Windsor, Canada. I was pleasantly surprised by the heart of “Stand Up Man” and the cousins’ view of the small town. Neither wants to be there but yet, both somehow find their identities along the way.



“I, Tonya”

The rivalry between U.S. figure skaters Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding was so bizarre that of course it had to be made into a movie. I mean, figure skaters aren’t exactly known for violence, so you can imagine the country’s surprise when one sports darling orders an assault on her fiercest competitor. This story has always fascinated me and I want to learn just what went down behind the scenes.



Foreign Drama

Many times, the most dramatic stories are best told by those with a different world view than our own. Here are two foreign dramas that are not to be missed.

“A Taxi Driver” (South Korea)

Various Korean films have touched upon the Gwangju riots of 1980, a tragic episode in Korean history, but none like “A Taxi Driver.” Based on a remarkable true story, the film centers around a German reporter who wants to reveal the truth behind the demonstrations and a taxi driver who takes him to the middle of the bloody mob scene. Song Kang Ho is easily the best South Korean actor of this generation and he gives another iconic performance. “A Taxi Driver” is South Korea’s entry into the Academy Award Foreign Language film category and is exactly the type of film that festivals like HIFF are made for.



“In the Fade” (Germany)

German beauty Diane Kruger (“National Treasture”) recently won the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival for her gritty performance in this film. Playing a woman who witnessed the murder of her husband and son by neo-Nazis, she does everything in her power to bring the culprits to justice.