NEW YORK -- Demonstrating that the English have no monopoly on heartwarming stories of plucky, downtrodden characters finding uplift via unlikely enterprises ("The Full Monty," "Calendar Girls," etc.), the Japanese film "Hula Girls" leaves no cliched stone unturned. This tale of a group of young women in a depressed mining community learning how to become Hawaiian hula dancers found great success in its native country, winning Japanese Academy Awards for picture, director, screenplay and supporting actress as well as being its official entry for the foreign-film Oscar.
Directed by Korean-born, Japan-based director Lee Sang-il, the comedy-drama is set in 1965, when the small town of Joban has entered hard times after its chief coal mine shuts down. The local authorities decide to try to revive their fortunes by converting it into a Hawaiian-themed tourist resort, thus necessitating the need for local young women who can hula dance.
Arriving to whip the mainly awkward recruits into shape is a famous dancer (Yasuko Matsuyuki) from Tokyo whose career has slumped. The hard-drinking, tough-edged instructor garners disapproval from the girls' parents, but, as you might guess, she eventually whips her ragtag group into hula dancing shape.
Freely mixing predictably wacky comedy with predictably melodramatic plot elements (a mining accident, domestic abuse, etc.), the film nonetheless manages to be reasonably entertaining despite, or, depending upon how you look at it, because of, its formulaic elements. Disbelieving skeptics should be advised that it is based on a true story.