The late Keo Woolford was a charming, extremely versatile actor who was best known for his role as Sgt. James Chang, which he played on the latest and extremely popular version of “Hawaii 5-O.” Woolford, who tragically died in 2016, at the age of 49 (due to a stroke), had an impressive stage career, left behind an impressive, multifaceted career. He played The King in a London production of “The King and I,” performed an acclaimed one-man show titled “I Land” and popped up in films like “Act of Valor” and the 2014 “Godzilla.” His sole feature-length motion picture as writer/director, “The Haumana,” is a noteworthy gem, a personal and absorbing independently made drama that dazzled film festival audiences. As a deeply felt work of art from its creator and a plea for cultural understanding, respect and appreciation, it deserves to find a new audience.
Tui Asau stars as Jonny Kealoha, a former hula student who sold out and works as a lounge singer in a tacky, tourist-baiting establishment. When Jonny’s aunt dies, he finds himself leading her hula class and having to lead a promising but inexperienced group of young men to perform at an advanced, competitive level of hula.
It opens with a flashy, well-edited sequence that immerses viewers into the glitzy, tacky world of Honolulu tourist attractions. We meet Johnny as he oversees a one-man show in which he gets patrons dancing with him onstage, enduring his hilariously awful tunes and even inviting a few groupies to his dressing room after the performance.
Once we get to the gist of the story, it unfolds in a formulaic manner, of a troubled teacher who takes on a group of gifted but unpolished teens; their climactic performance isn’t just a means of competition but personal redemption for all involved.
Yet, as familiar as the narrative blueprint is, Tui Asau’s solid lead performance always works and so does the social commentary on hand. The contrast of the purity, personal expression and cultural tribute found in hula, versus the insulting, corny contrivance of Johnny’s stage show, comes across sharply. Kelly Hu is the biggest name on hand and she gives a nice turn, de-glamourized in a feisty cameo as a seen-it-all-bartender.
The scenes of the young men and their teacher pursuing excellence in hula are engrossing; this fully explores the mindsets and various cultures represented by Jonny’s class. There’s a stock character aspect to the roles that the actors and the film itself overcome- it’s one thing to have a student who is forbidden to dance, due to religious beliefs, but its another thing to have the student come from a Hawaiian home where the father believes hula promotes paganism (an angle I’ve never seen before in film).
While technically unrated, its essentially a PG-13 film, minus a tense moment that contains a helping of F-bombs (it’s a sequence involving marijuana growers that I’d argue the film could have done without). Even at 90-minutes, it feels slightly overlong and extended with filler, especially towards the end. Yet, the quality of the production, and its effectiveness at expressing passion for its culture and characters, is undeniable.
For a labor of love and little independent film, it captures the joy of immersing oneself in their culture, expressing empowerment, finding pride and discipline through dance. Despite some formula requirements of the genre, it feels on the level with its subject, making it far stronger than its shortcomings. This is a good movie about the love and importance of hula.
Asau’s winning performance anchors the film, which movingly portrays the importance of embracing and respecting one’s cultural heritage. The scenes of the young men practicing hula are stirring, as their dance isn’t just about learning movement, but reflecting the legacy and power of their culture.
I first saw Woolford’s film at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center, in a double feature with Brian Kohne’s Maui-made indie comedy, “Get A Job.” While Woolford’s “The Haumana” and Kohne’s “Get A Job” seem dissimilar at first glance, both have crucial elements in common. Both fit in established genres (the former is an Underdog Teacher Drama, while the latter is a Screwball Comedy) but offer social commentary and an authentic depiction of their cultures. There is love, concern and personal reflection about the current state of Hawaii in both films. There’s also confidence and true competence in the filmmaking, as both films start off with a bang, fulfill the needs of their narratives and respective genres, yet also reflect what can be accomplished when seeking to create cinema that reflects the heart and soul of Hawaii.
Woolford reportedly had already begun work on a sequel- indeed, the characters are so colorful and endearing, another chapter would have been welcome. As it stands, “The Haumana” is an isolated expression of aloha from its maker, sad for being a lone directing effort, but deserving of further celebration and discovery for its value as a commendable example of Hawaiian independent cinema.