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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Thursday, August 5, 2004

Island film 'The Ride' catches waves of praise

By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

There has always been a place for films about Hawai'i, created by writers, directors and producers from Hawai'i, crewed by Hawai'i production crews and starring Hawai'i actors.

Sean Kaawa, who plays Duke Kahanamoku, and Mary Paalani, who portrays his romantic interest, Lehua, are among the stars in the Hawai'i production, "The Ride."

Dawn Sueoka photo

Johann Bouit, left, Weldon Kekauoha, Sean Kaawa (who plays Duke Kahanamoku), and Scot Davis are beach boys in Nathan Kurosawa's film, "The Ride."

Third Reef Pictures

And that place, of course, is Hawai'i — exclusively.

But the success of local guy Nathan Kurosawa's independent film "The Ride," which opens its run tomorrow at the Wallace Theatres at Restaurant Row, has prompted a re-evaluation of that idea, or at least an expansion.

Since its huge splash at the Hawai'i International Film Festival — 15,000 people turned out for a special screening at Sunset on the Beach — Kurosawa's movie about a cocky Mainland surfer who gets magically transported to 1911 Waikiki, where he is befriended by Duke Kahanamoku, has been charming film-festival audiences around the country.

In recent months, the film has garnered positive reviews at prestigious festivals like the Newport Beach Film Festival, the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, and the Pacifika: New York Hawaiian Film Festival 2004.

That's not too shabby, considering that "The Ride" is Kurosawa's first feature film, that the script was written in one feverish week in a Waikiki hotel, and that the film's neophyte cast had better credentials for a Na Hoku Hanohano award — there were many musicians in the crew, that is — than an Oscar.

"It's a really homegrown production," Kurosawa said. "The cast and crew were all from Hawai'i and there was a great atmosphere on the set. I think that shows up on the screen."

The Kaiser High School alumnus said he was driven by a desire to "get it right" — to represent a Hawai'i that locals would recognize in look, sound and spirit.

The project originally was intended to be a made-for-TV movie for a younger audience. Kurosawa knew he could capitalize on the surfing craze, but he wanted to use it as an opportunity to make a statement about Hawaiian values.

'The Ride'
  • Not rated; suitable for families
  • Opens tomorrow, Wallace Theatres, Restaurant Row
  • 526-4171
"There were so many shows that cast a negative light on surfing, showing it as cut-throat and commercialized," he said. "I thought, 'What better way is there to show the real meaning of surf culture than by showing where it came from?'

"To do that, we knew we had to include Duke, but his accomplishments are already so well known, we thought, 'Why not go further back and show him as a kid, his life as a beachboy?' " Kurosawa said. "That really was the catalyst for the character's development."

The story was conceived just two months before production started. Kurosawa wrote the script "holed up in a room at the Waikiki Parkside," with history books and notes from conversations with Kahanamoku's friends, family and biographer.

Kurosawa said he felt a confluence of positive forces moving him forward.

"I found out the hotel was right on the same block as Duke's old house," Kurosawa said. "And while I was writing, the newspaper had a front-page story about the Moana Hotel (a key location in the film) celebrating its 100th birthday."

Auspicious circumstance also played a role in securing the labor for the production. A looming Screen Actors Guild strike had halted production on several projects and "Baywatch Hawaii" had just been canceled. That meant crews that might have been too busy to work on an indie film suddenly were free.

"A lot of crews had worked on 'Pearl Harbor' and 'Windtalkers' that year, so they had money and they were willing to work," Kurosawa said. "There was a window of opportunity."

Hawai'i sounds enhance Island look

Part of the magic of "The Ride" is it's Hawaiian music soundtrack — a real rarity these days. While licensing problems prevent Kurosawa from compiling a soundtrack CD, the director encourages fans to seek out the original recordings. Here are a few of the artists and tunes featured in the movie:

• Keali'i Reichel — "E O Mi," "Mele A Ka Pu'uwai," and "Maunaleo"

• B.E.T. — "Vibes Dem Cool"

• Barry Flanagan — "Anjuli," "Olinda Road," "Justin's Lull-abye," and "Lei Pikake"

• Weldon Kekauoha — "Hawaiian Man," "Local Boy," and "Wai'alae/Ahe Lau Makani"

• Keahiwai — "Beat the Rest"

• Oshen — "Honolulu"

• Kava Music — "The Ride"

• Taimane Gardner — "The Crab Dance," and "North Shore Waters."

Not only that, but cast and crew were willing to take pay deferments just to help the production get off the ground.

"I would have done it for lunch," said Mary Paalani, who plays romantic interest Lehua in the film.

Paalani and the other main cast members all were newcomers to film, though not necessarily to performing.

Paalani has modeled for print and television. Sean Kaawa, who plays Kahanamoku, is front man for the reggae band Red Degree. Weldon Kekauoha, the award-winning Hawaiian music artist, plays Lehua's brother, Blackie. And University of Hawai'i football fans may recognize former wide receiver Johann Bouit as beachboy Caps.

Kurosawa was set to bring in an actor from Los Angeles to play the lead, David Monroe, but while casting for supporting actors in Hawai'i, he decided, "What the hell, let's bring in the haole boys from Hawai'i Kai and Kailua."

That bright idea yielded Scot Davis, a Kailua resident and graduate of the UH dramatic-arts program.

While Kurosawa admits some characterizations and performances are "a little over the top," his script gracefully avoids many stereotypes common in Hollywood portrayals of the islands.

And unlike many Hollywood productions, "The Ride" makes liberal use of pidgin, particularly the more Hawaiian-influenced version of Kahanamoku's heyday.

"No one has ever done pidgin and local mannerisms right on the big screen," Kurosawa said. "I didn't want to screw it up. I didn't want to produce something that would be embarrassing for people here to watch."

Kurosawa said Mainland audiences had no problem following the dialogue, given the context, and that should show other filmmakers that pidgin can be used in film without alienating nonlocal audiences.

Most of the movie takes place in 1911, just before Kahanamoku broke onto the national scene as a surfer and Olympic swimmer.

Kurosawa wrote the script around a few key historical dates and envisioned an undeveloped Waikiki, where Kahanamoku and his beachboy friends earned money teaching tourists from the Moana how to surf.

Kaawa, who grew up in Wai'anae and graduated from Kalani High School, said it was a thrill to dress in the clothes of the day and to walk around a set that brought to life images shared by his own grandparents.

But actually playing the legendary Kahanamoku?

"Oh yeah, I was intimidated," he said. "People still remember him. I was worried that everybody would get down on me, saying that's not how he was."

Kaawa said he was lucky to even get the part after botching his first audition. Still, Kurosawa recognized something in Kaawa that spoke to the dignity and gentleness of Kahanamoku's legend.

"(Kurosawa) said I just fit the character," Kaawa said.

Paalani said Kaawa did indeed convey the spirit of the Duke, and the film itself communicated a purity of Hawaiian experience that is inspirational.

"This film has such a good, awesome message about what Hawai'i was and what it can be," she said. "I hope that message reaches people."

In addition to the theatrical run, Kurosawa is shopping "The Ride" to cable networks that specialize in children's programming. He also intends to release the film on DVD, his best shot at making money off of the project.

Reach Michael Tsai at mtsai@honoluluadvertiser.com or 535-2461.