Waikiki Review – Paradise Lost

Danielle Zalopany as Kea in WAIKIKI - Photo courtesy of Christopher Kahunahana

With a nod to Dante, it seemed fitting to summarize WAIKIKI with his famous title. For Hawaii might very well be considered a paradise of sorts, and the film makes the audience keenly aware of just how much the native Hawaiians have lost as other encroached on their ancient lands. While the lush landscape still entices and the prettily clad hula dancers gently remind audiences of times past, the reality is often far different from the posters. With the start-up aid of Kickstarter, Waikiki writer/producer/director Christopher Kahunahana quietly and poignantly draws attention to the lot of the native Hawaiian, often considered not quite the equal of the Haoles who came, saw, and conquered generations ago.

The Happy Hollywood Waikiki – Photo courtesy of Christopher Kahunahana

As the gentle and even tragic Kea (Danielle Zalopany) fights a battle to retain her dignity and her very life. After her van hits Wo, (Peter Shinkoda), who has sunk even lower than she has, Kea feels that she must take responsibility for his well-being. Despite trauma and physical and spiritual pain, the world moves on at a pragmatic and seemingly unfazed pace. Unable to find work and plagued by substance abuse and poverty, Wo and Kea are part of the homeless crowds who are unable to make the system work for them. While she dreams of a warm and loving time when her grandmother cared for her and taught her the “old ways,” Kea finds adaptation to a new society almost impossible in a land marked by violence, abuse, poverty, and mental illness. Even though she is able to find the strength to part from her abusive boyfriend Brandon (Jason Quinn), Kea loses soon her job, her van, her money, and everything that might matter to her – leaving her only with dreams of a better time as she sleeps on the hard ground.

Peter Shinkoda as Wo – Photo courtesy of Christopher Kahunahana

Kahunahana does an excellent job of slowly and painfully tracing Kea’s downward spiral, drawing from his talented actors feelings of overwhelming pain and loss. Even in daylight, scenes are dark and murky, reflecting the moody hopelessness of its main characters. Still, nature remains; and it might be possible to seek strength from this traditional force. But are brief moments of happiness and light enough to balance a life not really lived and an identity not really recognized?

Jason Quinn as Brandon – Photo courtesy of Christopher Kahunahana

To quote director and native Hawaiian Kahunahana, “The Hawaii of my childhood is a world far different than the glossy misrepresentation presented in Hollywood film…repercussions of colonialism and Statehood have left a people severed from ancestral land and culture… (causing) a profound effect on Hawaiian psychology and self-image…I explore the contradictions of nature and development in contemporary Hawaii…how the destruction of nature impacts mental and spiritual health.” Filmed on location on Oahu, WAIKIKI provides glimpses of past and future while remaining in a gritty present-day reality. In a slice-of-life format, WAIKIKI relays a powerful message.

Danielle Zalopany – Photo courtesy of Christopher Kahunahana

WAIKIKI made its world premiere at Urbanworld Film Festival and had its virtual West Coast premiere at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival on October 29 and 30, 2020.

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