The Haumana: Film Review

The exotic milieu and gorgeous settings enliven this familiar redemption tale.

A lounge singer is recruited to teach traditional hula dancing to male students in this Hawaii-set film.

Moviegoers unfamiliar with Hawaii’s hulu culture -- and it’s safe to say they’re the vast majority -- will receive a handy cinematic primer in the form of Keo Woolford’s debut feature. Relating the tale of an alcoholic lounge singer who finds redemption when he finds himself tapped to teach a group of male high school students the intricacies of this exotic dance form, The Haumana boasts enough gorgeous scenery and colorfully appealing elements to make it a handy tool for the islands’ tourist bureau.

The Hawaii-born filmmaker clearly knows his milieu well, investing the proceedings with a seemingly undeniable authenticity. While his storyline doesn’t win any points for originality, it nonetheless gets the job done while providing an ample showcase for the undulating hips frequent on display.

The film’s central character is Jonny (Tui Asau), an entertainer working in a cheesy Honolulu lounge catering to tourists, the female variety of which he takes frequent advantage. His life takes a dramatic turn when he’s called to the deathbed of “Auntie Margaret” (Marlene Sai), his beloved hula master. Much to his surprise, and the consternation of her longtime female disciple Napua (Mary Paalani), the dying woman asks Jonny to prepare her haumana, or students, for their participation in the upcoming Royal Hula Festival competition.

Struggling to overcome his drinking problem and doubtful of his own abilities, Jonny nonetheless proceeds to honor her request. Cue endless variations of whimsical, Karate Kid-style training sequences, which city-trapped viewers will be happy to learn take place primarily on the beautiful beaches of Waikiki. We’re gradually introduced to the various haumana one by one, with each one naturally dealing with personal issues. One of them is reluctant to tell his straitlaced parents about his new avocation; when he finally admits, “I’m a hula dancer,” his horrified mother responds, “Are you gay?” Another struggles to reconcile his Christian beliefs with the islands’ ancient traditions.

Although some non-hula devotees will inevitably find such seriousness applied to the subject matter a bit silly, The Haumana nonetheless succeeds in its obvious aspirations to deliver a sincere insider’s perspective and greater awareness of this traditional form of cultural expression.

(Hula Nation Filmworks)

Cast: Tui Asau, Tauarii Nahalea-Marama, JD Tanuvasa, Cedrick Jonathan, Marelen Sai, Kelly Hu

Director/screenwriter: Keo Woolford

Producers: Caleb Lucero, Sky Kim, Keo Woolford

Directors of photography: Shawn Hiatt, Mark Morgan

Editor: Jimmy Sireno

Composer: George “Gibi” del Barrio

Not rated, 95 min.