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HULA GIRLS (article first published : 2007-10-24)

Last year’s winner of 11 of Japan’s equivalents of the Oscar, the subtitled Hula Girls has gone on to rake in seven other awards at various festivals and is a box-office smash in both Japan and Korea.

Based on a true story, it’s a gentle, sweet and heart-warming film, albeit heavily clichéd, overly sentimental and quite predictable.

Director Lee Sang-Il, a Korean based in Japan, has woven a comedy-drama based on the true story of a small Japanese mining town forced to resort to drastic measures to save its community. The time is 1965 and with the dreary town of Joban facing closure of its coal mines and the retrenchment of 5,000 labourers, local authorities - headed by the bumbling Yoshimoto (Kishibe Ittoku) - decide that, to save the day, they will introduce some year-round summer to a place noted for its chilly weather.

The plan is to create a Hawaiian-themed village in the town, with the hope of attracting tourists. So word goes out that hula dancers are required to promote the theme park and, later, perform at the village. A small bunch of misfits arrive for training under a world-weary once-famous Tokyo dancer, Madoka (Yasuko Matsuyuki), who, after some stumbling blocks and in spite of ongoing disapproval from the girls' parents, slowly knocks her amateur dancers into shape and starts to encourage others to shake and swing their hips, island-style.

Among them is the starry-eyed Sanae (Eri Tokunaga) and her less-impressed friend Kimiko (Yu Aoi), the nerdy Shoko (Shoko Ikezu) and the tall and awkward Sayuri (Shizuyo Yamazaki), whose theatrical father elbows her into hula lessons.

Subplots vary from the humorous – a worker having endless problems transporting, planting and protecting palm trees imported for the theme village – to dramatic issues of mother-daughter friction, domestic abuse and grief.

For all its lack of surprises and one or two hammy moments the film remains worth seeing for some fine photography, a few well-defined characters and some good performances, most notably from a young Aoi who, as rebel-turned-lead-dancer Kimiko, is a striking screen presence, a beguiling dancer and has the looks of a young Liv Tyler. Rating 6/10 – Billy Suter




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