Kuleana, written and directed by Brian Kohne, is unquestionably the work of a filmmaker who deeply loves the culture and people of Hawaii. And anyone who’s had the opportunity to visit Maui will likewise be entranced, as the film serves up the island’s beauty along with a densely layered story that Kohne has constructed.
The film is set in two time periods. The first is 1959, prior to Hawaii’s official statehood, but when opportunistic real estate developers were already moving in to destroy paradise in the name of the almighty dollar.
A parallel storyline is set 15 years later. The island has undergone a profound change to reflect the changes in the islands. Luxury hotels have been built all over the island, and the natives have no choice except to enter the service industry in order to survive. Meanwhile, the United States government is conducting bombing tests nearby, startling the well-paying hotel guests.
What ties the two time periods together are the main characters. We’re first introduced to Nohea (Moronai Kanekoa) and Kim (Sonya Balmores) as children, but then they are reunited as adults to confront the demons from their past. When Kim’s mother, Rose (Kristina Anapau), takes a fatal leap from a hotel balcony, Kim is certain that her unscrupulous real estate developer father, Victor (Stefan C. Schaefer) is to blame. She enlists Nohea’s help to solve the crime, unaware that he’s already sold his family’s land (and his soul) to the man to provide for his beloved grandmother (Marlene Sai).
This synopsis just scratches the surface of Kohne’s densely-layered plot. He combines a noir-style mystery story with large chunks of fascinating Hawaiian history and mysticism, and it’s surprisingly effective. His efforts are aided enormously by the performances. Kanekoa is a standout as Nohea, well-matched by Balmores as Kim. Sai is touching as Nohea’s affectionate grandmother, the only person who can keep her embittered Vietnam veteran grandson from sinking into misery.
Schaefer is somewhat wooden as Victor, but since his character is such a shallow, unlikeable creep, it works to his advantage. Anapau is also memorable as Rose, Victor’s beaten-down wife whose broken heart can clearly be seen in her eyes. Kohne populates his film with other notable and offbeat characters, some of whom provide welcome comic relief.
Given its limited budget, Kuleana looks sensational, with sparkling cinematography by Dan Hersey and dynamic editing by Adi Ell-Ad. The score is a nice combination of native music by Willie K. Kahaiali’I and Johnny Wilson and well-chosen period tunes (“A Whiter Shade of Pale” is used to good effect).
Kuleana is certainly a unique experience, merging unlikely genres and providing a cast of characters whom audiences can identify with no matter where they live.
Reviewed August 1, 2017, at the San Antonio Film Festival.