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Where EAST meets the Northwest

HULA GIRLS. Lee Sang-il’s Hula Girls opens at Portland’s Hollywood Theatre and Seattle’s Grand Illusion Cinema on Friday, September 21. (Photo courtesy of Viz Pictures)

From The Asian Reporter, V17, #38 (September 18, 2007), page 11.

Despite unique look, Hula Girls is all too familiar

Hula Girls

Directed by Lee Sang-il

Produced by Lee Bong-ou

Distributed by Viz Pictures

By Jeff Wenger

Hula Girls, opening September 21 at the Hollywood Theatre and Grand Illusion Cinema, is a sweet little story about coal miners’ daughters who put on a show in 1965 Japan. If they don’t save the town, they at least ease the transition to difficult economic realities, though that formulation lacks poetry.

Japan is changing from coal to oil and the Big Mining Company has been laying off the simple men who do the dirty work of mining. Everyone knows what is coming.

Director Lee Sang-il and cinematographer Hideo Yamamoto convey Joban as a drab frontier town, in smudged browns and grays, with unpaved streets and wooden sidewalks. All of Hula Girls has a wonderful, authentic, washed-out look. Only repeated glances at notes assured me it was set in 1965, not filmed in 1965.

The mining company’s idea to soften the landing is to channel money into a "Hawaiian Paradise" scheme in the frozen northern city. Among the local girls, an appeal is made for dancers.

The company brings in a Big City Woman to teach the girls to hula. Yasuko Matsuyuki plays Ms. Hirayama. She’s gorgeous in a young Rita Moreno way and sports fantastic "That Girl" fashions and hairstyles. Her colorful wardrobe is immediately at odds with the dullness of the town and the townsfolk.

This doesn’t fly with the town’s conservative element, the union, and the mothers and fathers who have known only coal mining and who naturally assumed that their children would know only coal mining. The recalcitrance of the folk seems to stem, not from cherished tradition, but simply from a stubborn unwillingness to change.

There are, to be sure, some lovely moments, but mostly Hula Girls becomes too sentimental and too melodramatic.

Hirayama is disdainful of the narrow-minded town, flummoxed by the clumsy girls, and disillusioned that her own life has been reduced to this. She’s about to walk away — but wait — she’ll stay on one condition: that the students do exactly as she says, which includes no crying!

There may be only so much that can be done anymore with the familiar theme of idealistic youth in conflict with the resignation of age, of escaping from the same restrictive small town, of taking your passion and making it happen.

Oops. That last one is from Flashdance, but you see how easy it is to slip into well-covered territory.

Watching Hula Girls reminded me of All the Right Moves, a movie I would rather not be watching, which starred the young Tom Cruise, who escaped through football and not dance. And then I thought of Footloose, which I would rather have been watching, and geez, Louise, pull me up by my knees, it hit me that a winning cast and a terrific look can’t save Hula Girls from a hundred movie clichés from ‘the show must go on’ to ‘these girls have been busting their tails to save the town.’

The sensibility runs from Al Jolson and Frank Capra through Shirley Temple and every sappy musical wherein the deus ex machina has the heart of a greeting card.

Can anyone doubt whether the mothers and men of the town will be won over? Or that the palm trees will be saved?

Amazing precision, parabolic hips, and broad smiles on synchronized hula dancers may be among the ten most wonderful sights on earth, but there’s not enough of them in Hula Girls. To strive for grace and beauty is laudable, but in Hula Girls we mostly get simple whirls and twirls.

The Hollywood Theatre is located at 4122 N.E. Sandy Blvd. in Portland, and the Grand Illusion Cinema is located at 1403 N.E. 50th Street in Seattle. For more information, including complete dates and show times, call (503) 281-4215 or visit <www.hollywoodtheatre.org> (Portland), or call (206) 523-3935 or visit <www.grandillusioncinema.org> (Seattle). To learn more about Hula Girls, visit <www.hulagirls-movie.com>.