The Hawai’i International Film Festival is capping off its 40th rendition with Christopher Kahunahana’s feature film debut, Waikiki. The story follows a woman, Kea (Danielle Zalopany), as she works multiple jobs in order to break away from her abusive relationship and get herself a place to call home. When she accidentally hits a homeless man, Wo (Peter Shinkoda), with the van she’s living out of and later finds her van missing altogether, the two sporadically travel and connect with each other, all the while Kea confronts the traumas of her past.
Waikiki is a tourist hot spot in Hawaii’s capital city of Honolulu, but beyond the pre-COVID, mainlander-dominant crowds, it’s easy to forget how there are people who live and work there, and not always under the best of circumstances. Subtract several centuries, and Waikiki, in its purest form, is land belonging to the Kanaka Maoli. The film is a raw examination of the people who call Waikiki their home; both in the literal and spiritual senses.
As Kahunahana elaborated in the film’s Q&A, Waikiki is very much a film about having empathy towards people you don’t know, for you never know what a person is going through. In the case of Kea, the children she teaches during the day don’t know that that isn’t her only job, and the tourists who watch her perform hula for their entertainment don’t know that she’s living out of her van. Zalopany does a tremendous job of portraying the different range of emotions her character goes through. You really sympathize with her and wish for the burdens she bears to disappear altogether.
Aside from getting really real with this struggling resident of Waikiki, the film also doesn’t shy away from getting abstract as the story goes along. While it’s evident that Kea has been through a lot in her life already, it’s never made clear as to what exactly happened. There are scenes that tend to flip back and forth between Kea running from her past and her past giving glimpses of what she’s been suppressing, without it spilling out all the way through.
There are also moments throughout the film where viewers may second guess if what is happening is real or not, which, at times, was a little confusing. Kahunahana spoke in the Q&A on how while some people on his team advocated for more structure, others encouraged more abstract. In the opinion of this viewer, Waikiki leaned a little too heavily on the latter. There were just a few too many moments where it was hard to make sense with what was going on.
At the same time, the abstract nature of Waikiki wasn’t always incomprehensible. If anything, the impressions alone just as well delivered the very messages the director had originally intended. Perhaps that’s all it takes to make the film as overall effective that it is; the feelings it gave off, and not always the story itself.
Waikiki is not, by any means, for the faint of heart. It is dark, gritty, and gets really real about the realities for some people who live and work there. At the same time, audiences can also expect for a sense of hope by the film’s end. Hope for what exactly? I leave that up to you to decide.