Monday, September 11, 2006

Hula Girls (Hula Gâru)

You could call Hula Girls a cross between The Full Monty (without the male strippers) and Coal Miner's Daughter (with less singing). The film is set in a small coal mining town in northern Japan in the 1960's. Coal is on its way out, and the mine is starting to lay workers off. The mining company decides the best way to save the town is to open a Hawaiian cultural centre to attract tourists, and the centerpoint of it all will be hula dancers.

A professional dancer, Madoka Hirayama, comes from Tokyo to teach the local girls how to hula, but only four girls show up; young Sanae, who sees dance as a way out of a dreary life; her friend Kimiko, who comes along if only to support her friend; a mother; and Sayuri, a tall, big boned girl with the grace to match. It is an uphill struggle for the girls to learn to dance, win over the reluctant and hostile townspeople who think the whole idea is a waste of good money and an affront to tradition, and overcome personal challenges and tragedies, all to realize their dreams of a better future for themselves and their town.

While the film is somewhat formulaic, it is still touching and sentimental. A tear-jerker, but one balanced by funny scenes and a sense of optimism that you know will overcome all obstacles. I really enjoyed the film; the lead characters played by Yasuko Matsuyuki as the dance teacher, and Yû Aoi as Kimiko, were particularly engaging, and the requisite climactic dance scene is as amazing as you'd expect.

Director Sang-il Lee was at the screening and did a Q&A after the film:

  • The film is based on real-life events, but Lee developed characters out of the story, and fiction and non-fiction are mixed.
  • The film will be released in Japan on September 23.
  • There have been many screenings in both Japan and Canada, and Lee said that audiences in both countries laugh and cry and are moved by the same scenes, at the same points. But in Canada the laughter is louder, while in Japan the crying is louder.
  • The real-life Joban Hawaiian Center has thrived, even though the mines in the town were completely closed 10 years after the centre opened. It has about 1.5 million visitors per year. In 2001, the last coal mine in Japan was closed.
  • None of the actresses had any dance training prior to the film, so they trained for three months. Shizuyo Yamazaki, who plays Sayuri, is a popular comedian in Japan, and her schedule is always tight; Lee worried that she didn't have enough time to practice, especially since she was the worst dancer.
  • Lee is Korean and lives in Japan, so he tends to be interested in minorities, even in this movie.
  • When time goes by, people don't usually remember the dark side of events; he wants to express it, which is why there are some dark scenes in the film.


My experiences at the Toronto International Film Festival. Note this blog is not affiliated with the Toronto International Film Festival Group or the festival itself.
Twitter Delicious Facebook Digg Stumbleupon Favorites