Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, November 2, 2001

Movie Scene
Veterans of World War II take centerstage in films

Veterans' saga touches a son's life
WWII film explores forgiveness
Sept. 11 muted much film-industry hoopla
6 films in running for top prize
Jurors are film-industry notables
Hawai'i International Film Festival information

By Wayne Harada
Advertiser Entertainment Editor

A scene of POWs en route to working on the railroad in "To End All Wars." Above: Ciar‡n McMenamin as Ernest and Sakae Kimura as Ito clash in the filmed-on-Kaua'i feature, which kicks off the film festival in two screenings tonight.

Argyli Film Partners photo

. . .

'To End All Wars'

A drama by David L. Cunningham; kickoff film

6:30 p.m. today at the Waikiki 2, 6:45 p.m. today at the Waikiki 1

$25; a HIFF benefit (no discounts)

. . . . .

'Journey of Honor'

A documentary by Stuart Yamane

5 p.m. Sunday at the Convention Center 1, 2:30 p.m. Nov. 11 at Convention Center 1

$7 ($6 for HIFF 'Ohana members)

Also: at 9 p.m. Nov. 11 on Hawai'i Public Television (KHET, channel 11, channel 10 on Oceanic)

War is hell, Hollywood has been telling us for years.

But for two Hawai'i filmmakers, war has emerged as a valid resource and a conduit for fundamental human issues such understanding, compassion, reconciliation and reflection. At least, that's what David L. Cunningham, 30, and Stuart Yamane, 49, hope audiences will recognize and absorb in their disparate movies during the Hawai'i International Film Festival, opening today on O'ahu.

Cunningham's "To End All Wars," a $14 million feature-length film in which Kaua'i masquerades as Thailand, launches the 21st annual festival tonight. The film has a World War II peg and deals with Allied POWs who struggled and died, as slave laborers for the Japanese, building the Thailand-Burma Railroad (a subject earlier explored in "The Bridge Over the River Kwai") between 1922 and 1944. It has the prerequisite action sequences of any war saga, but succinctly magnifies the personal conflicts between humans rather than nations.

Yamane's "Journey of Honor" is a television documentary exploring the remarkable legacy by a group of ordinary men, Americans of Japanese ancestry during World War II, whose acts of heroism, patriotism and sacrifice have instilled an indelible lesson about duty and honor in a time when the world needed it most. Then, and now. The film shows twice, including an appropriate Veterans' Day (Nov. 11) screening on the closing day of the festival, with a Hawai'i Public Television debut later that evening on the tube.

About the timing

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, both directors feel their films offer solace, heighten issues about survival and understanding, even transmit hope in mankind.

"I think if people read the whole title, they'll see that this really isn't a war picture," Cunningham said about "To End All Wars." Though he lives in Los Angeles now, he still spends three months of the year in Hawai'i and previously lived at Waimea on the Big Island.

"Sure, there's a war presence, but it is not a war picture," he said. "It deals with more fundamental issues, about relevance and reconciliation — themes that most war movies don't deal with. In a moment when America is caught up in the fallout of 9/11, I think the movie arrives at a good time."

"I thought I was going to accompany these soldiers and merely document the trip," said Yamane, an executive producer at Hawai'i Public Television, whose year-round work on the popular "Na Mele" Hawaiian music series has given him some visibility with audiences. But the trip, by AJA veterans to Europe, turned out to be a personal journey of discovery and reconciliation.

"It took on a most profound meaning; it made me closer to my father (Masakichi Yamane), who was pretty much estranged most of my life because of divorce and alcoholism," he said. "He died five years before we made the trip, and I had little connection with him at that time. But I received a box of his war mementos — stuff he had from the war, medals and things — and after talking to his commanding officer, Sakae Takahashi, and others who knew him, the project took on a wholly different relevance to me. What struck me, as a result of 9/11, was that my dad, and soldiers like him, were like the rescue workers, firefighters and police at Ground Zero. Regular folks just doing their jobs, doing heroic acts. It was amazing."

Wartime discrimination

In filming the spectacle that is war, Cunningham was able to zoom in on the intimacies of conflict.

"I think we were able to address the issue of justice vs. mercy, how and where does mercy play into justice," Cunningham said. "And we also deal with racial and cross-cultural issues. How discrimination plays in a time of war."

The movie depicts most of the Japanese officers as mean-spirited, heartless souls (except for one caring underling). The Allied prisoners are abused at every opportunity — this is an old-fashioned war drama, remember — and racist name-calling accompanies brutalities. The issue of justice/vengeance faces the POWs when the tables are turned — after the war is over and the Japanese become the victims of their own cruelty.

"We have had tremendous success and encouragement at film festivals," Cunningham said about initial response to the film. "The issue of reconciliation is something that not too many war-theme pictures deal with, and that's something, I guess, we need to market."

The film has been exhibited at the Telluride and Toronto festivals, among others, with a couple more expected after the HIFF unveiling.

Cunningham invested quite a bit of his own money to complete the project and he's thrilled that the movie was largely shot in the Islands. He was able to edit it on the Big Island, with a reason: "I wanted our daughter to be born there and she was."

Cunningham was pleased with the filming on the Garden Island — and advocates more projects done entirely here. "Hawai'i will cost you more for housing and food, but if you go to the Philippines or Thailand thinking it's cheaper, you're going to deal with the instability of government, health issues, even corruption," said Cunningham.

"The bottom line is, you're going to end up paying a lot more money you're not budgeted or planning to pay. I think Hawai'i is a wonderful place to shoot, with the people bending over to help you, as long as you're respectful of the people while you're in their back yards. You need to understand, in embracing the infrastructure, that the land has to be respected, too. I've done two films here (the first was "Beyond Paradise," on the Big Island) and I will continue to work here whenever possible."

His next feature is something called "Rebels," "where I was actually hired as a director — which means they're using other people's money to finance, not mine." It's a pre-Revolutionary-War story about a group of young men who hold off the British in the hills of Vermont. It will film in New England and Canada, said Cunningham.

"But I've got some projects, too, that would be shot entirely in the Islands," he said. "If I don't do it at home, I get to edit there — that'll be in my contract, something I need to stay connected. I want all my kids to be born in Hawai'i" (no, the Cunninghams are not now anticipating).

Nisei soldiers

Yamane said he really had no budget to work on his film. He heard that former news anchor and war correspondent Bob Jones was embarking on a tour to Europe, with a dozen or so AJAs who had served in the 100th Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team during the war. The Nisei soldiers, the second-generation AJAs, became the most decorated units in American history, with more than 18,000 individual decorations and more than 9,000 Purple Hearts for wounds received in action.

Nearly 60 years after the war, the men making the mission to Italy were now in their 80s. With wives, children and other survivors in tow, the journey also served as a means to pass on the legacy and the reflections of the heroism to the survivors.

As narrator Yamane says at one point in the film, "memories and legacy are foundations of who we are" today.

Patriotism and heroism, Yamane said, often are not linked with everyday folks. "But I think this film will sort of get you thinking about what a hero is; it's not always the person with the medal, the person who fought. It's ordinary people in a particular circumstance, doing their job. It may be heroic, in some small personal way, but in light of 9/11, this group of ordinary, modest people are also true heroes, who fought for democracy and, in some cases, died. It's a high price to pay for freedom, just as those who've showed courage throughout the terrorism and the after-effects."