A tale of one woman’s hardship that’s embedded in the DNA of Christopher Kahunahana’s drama Waikiki (2020) intertwines with echoing undertones of a grand-scale environmental wake up call; a crossroads between Sundance-born darling and a National Geographic piece which owns its brighter moments, along with undeniable visual quality too. Alas, Waikiki (2020) never finds its equilibrium, having trouble establishing a bond between the loose parts.
Upon entering the world of Waikiki (2020), forget the postcard Hawaii you might know. In Christopher Kahunahana’s film, Hawaii abandons images of pristine water for most of the time, along with the wide-smiled surfers and the flowery garlands Leis, and Elvis Presley’s Blue Hawaii softly chirping in the background to fulfill the bucolic promise.
Yet for Christopher Kahunahana, Honolulu is everything but these holiday memories. In the shadow of luxury resorts exists life that has no common ground with postcard-image perfection. The capital city of Hawii remains forever vibrant, New York-ish and busy. We meander in the neon-soaked streets, like the ones you see in Ho Chi Minh in Furie (2019), or in Bangkok from Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives (2013). It’s a monster that devours individuals, lost in the streets of the non-tourist areas, and Kahunahana has a firm grip over the beast’s appearance.
Hence contrary to the lyrics of Elvis Presley’s song, dreams don’t come true on Blue Hawaii. At least not for the people like Kea (Danielle Zalopany) – a native Hawaiian in her 30.Acting as our guide, Kea navigates the parts of the city that are closed off from the eyes of regular tourists. Life ain’t easy for her, as she clings onto any job she can perform, from hula dancing and teaching at school to “amusing” visitors in one karaoke bar.
Then one night, the latter vocation triggers her hot-headed boyfriend Branden (Jason Quinn) when he storms in the karaoke venue and puts up quite a show that ends with a violent showdown. While on her desperate attempt to run away from the abusive boyfriend, Kea hits a drifter on the road. Now, stricken with guilt and knees-deep in troubles, Kea feverishly decides to take him inside her van. In a rather unexpected turn of events, Kea establishes a connection with the homeless man she hit – an unlikely light in the dark tunnel.
One could see this event as cathartic for Kea. Our protagonist struggles to find deeper meaning to her existence, a fact poignantly and poetically sketched by Christopher Kahunahana, and expressed through the tranquilizing shots of lush forests, the gentle buzz of streams and waterfalls, as they intersect with the busy streets of Honolulu. The meaning of this is simple. Waikiki (2020) constitutes an ode to Mother Nature, where all things begin, happiness included. Kea teaches the back-to-the-roots approach at school too – Hawaiians are keiki o ka ‘aina, children of the land.
Yet for Kea, this is all theory until things go south. The catharsis comes in the form of her tatterdemalion of a companion, Wo (Peter Shinkoda). He might speak little, yet the two understand each other on a more metaphysical level. Their shared joy’s found in the most unexpected moments – like in a scene when Kea and Wu ride around, frivolously urging truck drivers to horn. And it is Wo, out of all people, who seems to see through the pain and hear the desperate call of Kea.
While traversing the streets and suburbs of Honolulu, Kea transforms, although Christopher Kahunahana embeds these changes with a 50% success rate.
Because at times, Waikiki (2020) really fails to connect the nature-driven shots with Kea’s story and problems. Kahunahana tends to drift away from the core drama, and while the film undeniably gains in grace and lightness, it also misses the punchline. As we learn more about the protagonist, it is revealed that one traumatic event has led Kea to some of her issues. While I liked the delicacy with which Kahunahana approaches the matter, the execution – edited in chaos and sprinkled as short flashbacks all over the film – complicates things in an unnecessary way.
Luckily, the narrative doesn’t slip out of hands completely thanks to Danielle Zalopany. Kea hits rock bottom that – only at times and not in its entirety – reminded me of Heaven Knows What (2014) by the Safdie Brothers. Kahunahana avoids graphic imagery though, because his film walks on the verge of an eco-conscious tale and drama, so the Hawaiian filmmaker isn’t keen on exploration of how much madness the audience can soak in as the aforementioned directors are.
Zalopany captures the conflict of Kea in a confident manner; she’s both indecisive and determined to change, a combination that calls for empathy. At the same time, it’s not a defenseless kid, but a tough warrior who courageously takes in the kicks and punches.