HIFF Review Roundup

touseThe Hawaii International Film Festival kicks off Thursday, Oct. 30 and runs through Nov. 9 on Oahu and from Nov. 13-16 on Hawaii Island and Kauai. Once again, there’s a great lineup of films in all genres. If you didn’t see my earlier post about my must-see films, here it is. For the full HIFF lineup, visit HIFF.org


We’ll be reviewing some of the HIFF movies and rounding them up below. Here’s what we have so far:

“We Are Brothers”

Country: South Korea


  • Sunday, Nov. 9, 2:00 p.m. at Dole Cannery
  • Sunday, Nov. 16, 12:00 p.m. at Waimea Theater Kauai

I’m a huge fan of writer and director Jang Jin. He has a great knack for writing memorable characters and his screenplays are some of the smartest in the Korean film industry. Jang, whose previous films include “Welcome to Dongmakgol,” “Guns and Talks” and “Someone Special” delivers another gem with “We Are Brothers.”

Jang has always been able to effectively mix together genres in his films and he continues this success in this film. “We Are Brothers” will have you laughing out loud in one scene then pull at your heartstrings the next. I’ve come to expect witty dialogue from Jang but even so, I was still amazed at some of the brilliant lines of dialogue in this film. There were at least a few moments where I thought to myself, “Now that’s a good line.”

If you are not familiar with Jang Jin’s work, “We Are Brothers” is a great way to introduce yourself to one of Korea’s best filmmakers.

Verdict: I want to have a drink with Jang Jin.

“A Hard Day”

Country: South Korea


  • Monday, Nov. 3, 6:00 p.m. at Dole Cannery
  • Friday, Nov. 7, 8:30 p.m. at Koko Marina
  • Saturday, Nov. 8, 7:00 p.m. at Dole Cannery

You think you had a hard day? Dirty cop Ko Gun Soo’s entire department is under investigation by Internal Affairs and his mother has just passed away. While driving to her funeral, he strikes and kills a man on a desolate road. Thinking that there are no witnesses, he puts the body in his trunk, intending to dispose of it later. When it’s revealed later who the victim is and how he’s connected to the police force, it’s the beginning of a crazy and wild ride as Gun Soo continuously has to cover his butt.

“A Hard Day” was not the film I was expecting but in a very good way. I thought it was going to be a comedy but in fact, it is an intense thriller that shows how far a man can go to save himself. Each time Gun-Soo think he’s in the clear, another clue shows up that can incriminate him and director Kim Sung Hoon and star Lee Sun Gyoon do a terrific job of building up the suspense and surprises along the way.

The Korean title actually translates to “going all the way” and that phrase is a perfect description of this film in terms of how far it will go to effectively tell its story. There are a few plot points that conveniently serve the storyline but overall, “A Hard Day” is a fun and thrilling ride.

Verdict: I’d go all the way again


Country: South Korea


  • Monday, Nov. 3, 8:30 p.m. at Dole Cannery

The film’s trailer and title (“haemoo” translates to “sea fog”) led me to believe that it would be a natural disaster film but “Haemoo” is much deeper than that. In fact, the story of a crew of fisherman caught in a fog while trafficking illegal Korean immigrants from China is so crazy and intense that it’s almost impossible to believe that it’s based on true events.

Written and produced by Bong Joon Ho, the director of some of Korea’s modern classics including “Memories of Murder” and “The Host” as well as this year’s “Snowpiercer,” Haemoo” shares his knack for developing memorable characters. And while its script isn’t as sharp as Bong’s other films, “Haemoo” does succeed in building drama and intensity with each scene. The cast of stellar Korean character actors including the great Kim Yoon Seok bring the action to life and Shim Sung Bo, who wrote the brilliant screenplay for “Memories of Murder” shows that he also has a gift for direction in his first directorial effort.

“Haemoo” is South Korea’s entry in the Academy Award race for Best Foreign Film and it’s easy to see why. I just hope the rest of the world doesn’t think Koreans are crazier than we really are after seeing this film.

Verdict: Has strong sea legs

“Kabukicho Love Hotel”

Country: Japan


  • Friday, Nov. 7, 7:45 p.m. at Dole Cannery
  • Saturday, Nov. 8, 1:15 p.m. at Dole Cannery

I usually like films about seemingly unrelated characters whose lives eventually intersect. It’s a great way to keep the viewer interested, especially for the modern ADD generation. “Kabukicho Love Hotel” uses this storytelling device effectively, with all of the action centered around a love hotel in the red light district of Kabukicho.

A love hotel is not a place where guests stay too long. Its purpose is to provide a nice and comfortable room for lovers to meet, and “Kabukicho Love Hotel” reveals the types of characters who visit and work in such establishments. Toru is the manager of the love hotel and in the course of a day, the hotel is home to a porn shoot with a surprising star; a prostitute working her last day before moving back to Korea; a man trying to con a young runaway teenager into becoming a prostitute; a pair of detectives having an affair and a cleaning lady on the run from a crime she committed 15 years ago.

It is easy to scorn those who visit love hotels, but the film’s greatest accomplishment is revealing that while they may not be as morally righteous as others, they are real people with genuine problems. Take a peek into this little known world and enjoy the show.

Verdict: Will keep you aroused

“Uzumasa Limelight”

Country: Japan


  • Friday, Oct. 31, 6 p.m. at Dole Cannery
  • Tuesday, Nov. 3, 3:45 p.m. at Dole Cannery
  • Saturday, Nov. 8, 1 p.m. at Koko Marina

As a kid I watched a lot of the Japanese samurai TV drama “Abarenbo Shogun,” and of course the highlight of each show was watching the main character slicing away at the bad guys with his samurai sword. I gave little thought to the men he was killing, but after watching “Uzumasa Limelight,” I now realize that there was an art to dying onscreen.

Seizou Fukumoto stars as Kamiyama, a 70-year-old actor who’s made a career of getting killed off in samurai dramas. He is a highly respected actor, yet remains humble and modest. When his production company decides to stop filming samurai dramas, he’s left with a huge void in his life until he’s asked by a young female actress to train her to become a kirare-yaku, an extra who dies onscreen.

Fukumoto, a real-life kirare-yaku, gives a fantastic, yet quiet and subtle, performance as Kamiyama. He’s a man of few words but a simple smile or look from his deep set eyes can say so much. I was very impressed by his life-long dedication to his craft and how he always kept his emotions in check.

“Uzumasa Limelight” shines the light on a rarely thought about aspect of samurai dramas, and I am glad that I was able to see this film to appreciate them even more.

Verdict: Banzai!


Country: Brunei


  • Saturday, Nov. 1, 8:30 p.m. at Dole Cannery
  • Sunday, Nov. 2, 2:15 p.m. at Dole Cannery
  • Saturday, Nov. 8, 3:00 p.m. at Koko Marina

I’m always in the mood for a martial arts flick, so I was pretty excited to watch “Yasmine,” which I thought would focus on the Southeast Asian martial art of Silat. Instead, “Yasmine” turned out to be a typical schoolgirl drama with boy crushes, resentment of the pretty girl, and yes, even the overbearing parent who doesn’t seem to understand their children. I’d never claim that the martial arts film genre was a deep one, but “Yasmine” never even attempts to dip its toes into the water.

The lead character is highly unlikable and selfish and not the underdog that audiences like to root for. And as for showcasing the art of silat, none of the masters featured in the film teach a single thing about the martial art. They are merely there as plot devices so that Yasmine can find her way to the silat championship, yet neither she nor the viewer has learned a thing about the art.

The action scenes are halfway decent, although highly choreographed and lacking natural rhythm and flow, but they are not enough to save this film.

Verdict: Opportunity wasted


Country: USA


  • Saturday, Nov. 1, 5:30 p.m. at Dole Cannery
  • Wednesday, Nov. 5, 5:45 p.m. at Dole Cannery

As a recreational volleyball player, I was really looking forward to watching “9-Man,” a documentary about a streetball game similar to volleyball played predominantly by Chinese men in the U.S. Like many other documentaries, “9-Man” introduces us to a handful of people passionate about the sport including players, coaches and even founders. The main storyline of the film leads up to the annual Labor Day championship tournament, but unfortunately there’s no true arc to any of the people featured. Their interviews are sprinkled in here and there, but never really go anywhere, and sometimes totally forgotten (so what happened to that half-Chinese kid from Canada?).

I did enjoy learning about the game and its history as I had never previously heard of it, and the racial politics regarding who’s allowed to play was also quite fascinating as players debated over how Chinese or Asian players were (an Indian player is not allowed to play, but black players who claim to have Chinese great grandmothers can). I also wish there had been more practice and game footage; I would have liked to have seen more on the sport’s strategy and gameplay. There is also an odd amount of time dedicated to Olympian volleyball player and local boy Kevin Wong, as if his participation in the sport validated its existence. Funny that after all the time interviewing him and talking about him, there’s no actual game footage of him doing anything significant.

Verdict: Bump, set, dink

“My Brilliant Life”

Country: South Korea


  • Thursday, Oct. 30, 8:30 p.m. at Dole Cannery
  • Saturday, Nov. 1, 12:00 p.m. at Dole Cannery
  • Saturday, Nov. 8, 8:30 p.m. at Koko Marina

It wouldn’t be HIFF without a Korean tear jerker.

This year’s entry for the Korean Kleenex movie, “My Brilliant Life,” stars Gang Dong Won and Song Hye Kyo as the perfectly photogenic married couple Dae-Su and Mira, who are the young parents of a teenage boy Areum. Areum is 17, but looks 80 due to a rare genetic condition called progeria that produces rapid aging in children. While they are more known for their looks, Gang and Song are also good actors but the film’s plot doesn’t really give them much to do. Despite their financial shortcomings, they are portrayed as practically perfect parents. Areum’s story is also pretty straight forward. “My Brilliant Life” is one of the most predictable, what-you-see-is-what-you-get films I’ve ever seen, but I’m sure it’s bound to squeeze out a tear or two anyway.

Verdict: Empty tears