English Title: Hula Girls
Original Title: Hula gâru
Country of Origin: Japan
Studio: Black Diamonds, Cine Quanon
Director: Sang- Il Lee
Producer(s): Hitomi Ishihara
Cinematographer: Hideo Yamamoto
Art Director: Yohei Taneda
Editor: Tsuyoshi Imai
Runtime: 108 minutes minutes
In the mid-Sixties, a small mining town in Northern Japan is facing crisis. The mine will soon be closing and the town is desperate to figure out how it will survive. Amongst the many ideas the townspeople offer up is a suggestion to build a new Hawaiian Centre - complete with stores, palm trees and hula dancers - to attract tourists. Even though Hawaiian culture is popular in Japan, the concept is not exactly embraced by the locals. Facing resistance, a group of young women decide to train to become hula dancers, and enlist the help of an ex-professional dancer from Tokyo. Against all odds, they work towards their dream of finding something outside of the cold desolate mining village whilst still hoping to save their town.
The first act of the film plays out like The Full Monty, though with young Japanese women, less nudity, and more grass skirts. Things start out a bit slowly, but there is some semblance of a story, and scenes of hula dancing, which provide relevance and meaning through the different gestures of the dances. Unfortunately, when the second act kicks in Hula Girls collapses upon itself. Things take a darker turn, and aside from weeping, the characters do not get a chance to do anything interesting for long periods of time, while every emotional scene is stretched to its breaking point. A prime example is a scene in which two of the original dancers say goodbye to each other. One is running along the top of a ridge chasing the truck carrying the other, and for what seems like ages, they yell "See you!" to each other until the camera holds interminably on the remaining friend waving frantically while the music swells. Another major issue is the music score, which desperately tries to pull at the heartstrings, but tinkling piano and delicate acoustic guitar are not enough to warrant an emotional response from an audience.
Aside from the climactic dance, which is the best part of the movie by far, the film loses its early sense of fun. Even the expected montages showing dancers slowly improving, getting to know each other better, and starting to help one another are overly clichéd and fall flat. With so many interesting ingredients - the possible impact of different cultures, economic implications of failing industries within blue collar communities, women in grass skirts – it is a shame that the filmmakers found nothing interesting to say. Somehow, the film actually won a number of awards within Japan, including four Japanese Academy awards, one of which was for Best Film, and was submitted as the Japanese entry for the 2007 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
Author of this review: Bob Turnbull