Film Marie O'Sullivan's Film Reviews

Film Review: Waikiki (2020)


A glimpse behind the facade of paradise shows that mental health and economic security can be difficult to come by in this feature debut by Christopher Kahunahana.

Anyone who, like me, grew up in a seaside town will know only too well that, away from the holidaymakers, things can be difficult for the local residents. Jobs may be temporary or seasonal, and it’s often difficult to find reasonable housing when the best properties and locations are reserved for visitors.

The name Waikiki conjures up sunshine, beaches, and grass skirts for most, but the film Waikiki, the feature debut from Hawaiian filmmaker Christopher Kahunahana, dwells very much on the flip side to this. 

Kea (Danielle Zalopany) is a young woman working three jobs to try to make a deposit for a room of her own, and in the meantime is living in her van. After fleeing her abusive boyfriend one night, she hits a mysterious homeless man (Peter Shinkoda) with her van. Panicked and guilt-stricken she loads him into her vehicle, and from there begins an emotional and traumatic journey into her past, her mind, and her own identity.

Waikiki is a film which starts out as a story of a young woman struggling with an abusive relationship and housing issues, but gradually becomes something much deeper and even darker; something which involves child exploitation, mental illness and a waning connection to Hawaiian culture and identity. It’s complex and at times not easy to watch as Kea’s increasing traumatisation causes the viewer to question what is reality and what is imagined or remembered.

Running through the narrative is a constant search for connection to nature, something which is portrayed as an important part of a culture which is disappearing among the kitsch of tourist souvenirs. Kea teaches her Hawaiian language learners “We all must take care of the island because the island will take care of us” and yet she, the one we meet who has the closest connection to her roots, appears abandoned by the community when she’s truly in need of support.

A reminder that not all is perfect in paradise, Waikiki is a gut-wrenching analogy for contemporary society and the far-reaching impact of exploitation.

Waikiki has its virtual West Coast premiere at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, October 29 & 30.

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