SIFF 2021: Waikiki

Waikiki — Urbanworld

Played with Waikiki as part of the festival, was PIIKSI/Huia the short film from Joshua Manyheads and Cian Elyse White. The short shows Sophie Williams as she auditions for her nation’s top ballet academy and blends traditional pointe ballet with dancing channeled from her indigenous roots. The film shares these themes with the paired feature propping up the message of both.


Christopher Kahunahana’s debut feature film opens with a seemingly picture-perfect scene. Many tourists are sitting at dinner watching a live hula performance in front of a picturesque Hawaiian landscape. This artificial performance provides unrealistic starting point for a film that dives into the commodification of indigenous people and the shared trauma that they experience.

After the hula performance ends, Kea (Danielle Zalopany), one of the dancers, leaves to apply for an apartment before returning to the van in which she is currently living. After resting some, she prepares herself to go out as an escort to make the last money that she needs for the security deposit. This last job ends violently when Kea’s ex Branden (Jason Quinn) shows up and aggressively removes her from the karaoke bar and her john. Angry and scared, Kea breaks away to her van, and while frantically driving hits Wo (Peter Shinkoda) an unhoused person. Feeling guilty, Kea takes Wo into her van and to keep him safe over the next few days. When she is denied the apartment and loses her van Wo ends up being her guide forward.

At about the two thirds mark, Waikiki breaks away from a traditional narrative and begins to earn the Lynchian moniker that some have bestowed upon it. The film proceeds with frequent quick cuts between different times and realities, all of which are used to convey trauma both personal and cultural. The dizzying dream like direction of the extended climax brings significant depth to the film’s exploration of indigenous people’s place in the current world and will likely require repeat viewings to fully comprehend.

While Waikiki may become inaccessible to many as the narrative breaks away to a freeform surrealist experience, the result is a nuanced film that explores its serious themes in a unique manner. The terror of Kea’s traumatic breakdown is perfectly juxtaposed with the paradise setting to reflect upon the impact of colonization. Kahunahana delivers and excellent first feature raising an underrepresented groups voice.