Brian Kohne’s eagerly awaited Kuleana is a film island audiences deserve but might not be expecting. The only quality this has in common with Get a Job, Kohne’s goofball, debut 2011 indie comedy is a wealth of cameo appearances by local Maui celebrities and personalities. Otherwise, everything in Kohne’s sophomore effort is far more polished and serious-minded.
The film draws us in with two timelines, in which an unsolved murder, a missing child case and unthinkable family secrets come to light on Maui in 1959 and 1971. With its easy-going pace, lived-in characterizations, emphasis on domestic cruelties and layered, twisty storytelling, the movie this most reminded me of was Chinatown.
Ambitious and more absorbing than most 2017 films, Kohne infuses magical realism, social commentary and Hawaiian history into a dense, busy, but coherent narrative. Not everything works but there’s enough dramatic pull and entertainment value for this to play far beyond theaters with an 808 area code.
An original blend of Hawaii’s history, spirituality and culture. Kuleana introduces a unique new film genre: Hawaiian Noir. While the setting may be tropical paradise, it’s set against a shocking and densely plotted mystery that twists and turns like a Raymond Chandler thriller. When Rose Coyle (played by a haunting Kristina Anapau) walks into a detective office, brandishing a cigarette and begging the private investigator to take on her case, I knew I was seeing a fresh take on dime store crime stories
The well assembled ensemble cast is full of noteworthy performances and a few acting discoveries. Playing the noble, wounded (in every sense of the word) Nohea is Moronai Kanekoa. His co-star is Sonya Balmores as Kim, a character whose journey takes on mythical proportions. Kanekoa and Balmores give deeply felt, highly charismatic performances that anchor the film. As Nohea’s Grandma, Marlene Sai is luminous, bringing life to a character that could have come across as a mere symbol. Vene Chun brings unexpected layers and steals many scenes as Uncle Bossy.
A never-better Branscombe Richmond is ferocious as an unseemly, dangerous figure (listed in the end credits as The Moke). It’s initially jarring to see Mel Cabang play a vile criminal and just as surprising to realize how great he is in a rich character role. The same goes for Augie T’s colorful but no-nonsense turn as a seen-it-all detective. Cabang and Augie T are so persuasively cast against type, I kept forgetting I was watching two local comedy legends.
Stefan Schaefer plays central villain Victor Coyle’s devilish nonchalance as recognizably banal evil and Steven Dascoulias is first rate playing that rarity of rarities: a sympathetic lawyer. Local audiences will note Kathy Collins’ spot-on vocal cameo, as well as former MauiTime writer Anuhea Yagi, more than holding the screen as a detective (good luck spotting Eric Gilliom’s cleverly placed appearance).
Willie K and Johnny Wilson’s exciting, flavorful score, Adi Ell-ad’s crisp editing and Dan Hersey’s beautiful cinematography keep things exciting and add greatly to the feel of discovery that awaits nearly every scene (particularly the Kaho`olawe-set sequences). Kohne has made some smart soundtrack choices, using the music in the same way he offers gorgeous scenery: as a contrast to the darkness taking place. There’s an especially striking use of Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” as well as classics by The Skyliners and The Platters.
The big climax goes by so quickly, I wanted to savor it more. Some of the supporting characters (particularly those played by Hoku Pavao and Tsune Watanabe) are intriguing enough that you wish Kohne would give them greater focus. The few scenes that offer light humor (notably a sequence involving an outrigger canoe) are unnecessary, though the tonal shifts are smoother than expected.
Kuleana is about the corruption beneath the exterior, both in Hawaii and within each of us. Kohne aims to make us aware of the forces in our lives that make us settle for moral compromise. In addition to the horrible abuse of Kaho`olawe, Kohne’s film is a cautionary tale against turning a blind eye to social injustice. If it sounds like a heavy-handed movie, it surprisingly isn’t.
There’s a moment where two local boys go diving into a resort swimming pool to collect a scattered fistful of coins, a visual that suggests the predicament of having to find work in a tourism-based economy. Another shot leans in on blood and wads of bills washing down a river. The meaning of the imagery won’t be lost on anyone, as Kohne allows the visuals to speak volumes, while the characters don’t sermonize or recite preachy exposition.
Long but never dull or uneventful, Kuleana is a significant work of Hawaii-made independent cinema. It’s so rich with ideas and delicious stacks of character revelations, seeing it twice is essential.
Kuleana screens at 8pm on Friday, June 23 at the Celestial Cinema in Wailea. For more information go to MauiFilmFestival.com.
Photo: Jack Grace