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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, February 15, 2004


By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

"Blue Crush," which was based on a journalist's work, stereotyped local male surfers as territorial bullies.

Universal Studios

"Shallow Hal" featured a prototypical "Hawaiian": Joshua "Li'iBoy" Shintani, seen here with Jason Alexander as Mauricio.

20th Century Fox

A Hawaiian auntie who talks tough but has a heart of gold.

An overweight cook with Polynesian tattoos on his face and a meat cleaver — which he uses to cut Spam, can and all — in his hand.

A pack of adorable, rascally local kids.

And a long-haired, wise-cracking local sidekick who'd do anything for his family and friends when he isn't "poofing" a joint.

All are characters in the latest Adam Sandler film "50 First Dates," set and shot largely on O'ahu.

Within the Sandler-movie universe of supporting characters, these are fairly innocuous figures. They stack up next to unintelligible Cajun football coaches with nipple rings, gay professional wrestlers turned elementary school principals and oversexed bulldogs from hell. Yet Hawai'i audiences may find these exaggerated stereotypes, and the film's depiction of Hawai'i as a whole, a little misleading and all-too familiar.

In fact, the Sandler film is one of several Hawai'i-themed movies released in the last few years that, while they keep Hawai'i prominent in the minds of potential tourists, reiterate misperceptions of Hawai'i and the Pacific that date back to the earliest days of Western contact.

To varying degrees, these films demonstrate that Hollywood is more than willing to resort to familiar perceptions of the Islands as places of lush natural beauty, populated (sparsely) by large, lazy people who sing, dance, play and eat but, oddly, don't work very much.

Carol Fujii, 40, who saw "50 First Dates" at an advance screening Tuesday, said she winced at some portrayals of local people but still enjoyed the film.

"I wasn't totally comfortable with the stereotypes," she said. "But it's a Hollywood movie, and everything is warped. Some of it was just the same old thing you see about locals, but overall it was really sweet and funny."

Alan Au, who oversaw production design for "50 First Dates," said it was his and director Peter Segal's intention "to show the essence of Hawai'i."

"I did lots of research into the old Hawai'i, and I got to know Hawai'i pretty well," Au said. "We did most of the shoots on location in Kailua and Kane'ohe, the green side of the island. That side of the island projects a strong Hawaiian image."

Indeed, the Hawai'i that Au and Segal present is gorgeous to look at — lapping waves, swaying palms, the lush, green Ko'olaus and acres of pineapple fields. But Hawai'i residents may wonder what happened to the island's tall buildings, traffic, schools, chain stores and people who go to work in long pants.

Simple Hawaiian hut

The fictional Hukilau Cafe, set in a fantastically rural and laidback Hawai"i, is the setting for "50 First Dates."

Columbia Pictures

Several local characters in "Dates" are encountered at a fictional diner called the Hukilau Cafe, which Sandler's character, a Hawai'i veterinarian, stumbles upon.

"I wanted the feel of a simple Hawaiian hut, a really rustic-looking building," Au explained.

"I wanted to communicate the warmth of the old days and the true character of Hawaiian living."

What this translates to is a 1950s-era shack with a cupboard filled with Spam, a wisecracking cook ("tattoo-face"), the Hawaiian auntie and a scene-stealing Asian senior with a potty mouth.

At the Hukilau and in the film, locals speak a strangely composed guidebook Hawaiian. No one ever says "hi," "bye" or "thanks" — only "aloha" and "mahalo."

Sandler's character works at Sea Life Park, where he enjoys a Dr. Doolittle relationship with a penguin and a well-endowed walrus (the walrus scenes were filmed in California), and supervises an androgynous Eastern European worker and his best friend, Ula, the long-haired pot-smoker.

Ula, played by Rob Schneider and loosely based on real-life Hawai'i resident Sione Samuela Ula Lomu, is perhaps the most problematic local character — and not just because of his oddly inflected pidgin. (More than one viewer detected Spanish and Native American qualities.) Ula is a heavy pot-smoker, an indifferent worker and a bit of a conniver — a good comic foil for Sandler's uptight protagonist, but just the latest in a decades-long string of wacky native stereotypes.

"I though the movie was great, but (Schneider's Ula) was kind of off," said Jen Chiang, 27. "I don't know what he was speaking, but it wasn't pidgin, and the stuff he said, you wouldn't hear people say over here. I don't want to be all politically correct, but that was kind of off."

University of Hawai'i English professor Paul Lyons, who has taught classes on representations of the Pacific in literature, hasn't seen "50 First Dates." But he recognizes issues common to many recent Hawai'i-themed films in it.

"Culture, whenever it is represented, is always caricaturistic, and there is a kind of nervousness around the subject that I think operates by turning everyone into buffoons, not just the locals," he said. "Local characters aren't given any nuance. They may be given some sympathy, but it's given as parody."

The problem with that, Lyons says, is that parody requires a sense of the original, an understanding of the thing being parodied.

"These films give no window into the complexities of local culture," he said.

Tourism showcase

Rob Schneider plays Ula in "50 First Dates," perhaps the most problematic of the film's local characters.

Columbia Pictures

As for those gorgeous scenery shots, Lyons said it's no accident they look like something from a Hawai'i Visitors and Convention Bureau ad.

"These movies look like HVB showcasing Hawai'i's natural resources," he said. "They reinforce a paradisical view of Hawai'i. You never see traffic jams or places where poor people live.

"There's a way in which a massive ignorance about Hawai'i has been perpetuated. It's a concerted effort by HVB to romanticize Hawai'i, and this becomes the context for how Hawai'i is represented on the continent."

It follows, then, that the Hollywood-Hawai'i partnership only sells what people are willing to buy.

"People want to believe in it," Lyons said.

Liz Backstrom, a first-time Hawai'i visitor from Boston, has absorbed enough about the Islands through popular culture to recognize what "50 First Dates" was driving at.

"The scenery was beautiful, and I think Hawai'i looked very friendly, laid-back and very romantic," said Backstrom. "It was more or less what I expected."

Kirk Uyezu, whose son James Kalanikoa Lee played one of Ula's sons, also enjoyed the movie. He said the depiction of locals was "overexaggerated," but to good comedic effect.

"They seemed more like North Shore types," he said. "I could see them being like that."

And Ula?

"I think he's more like what someone from the Mainland would think locals are like," Uyezu said.

Tired types

"50 First Dates" is hardly alone in its use of stereotypical Polynesian images and characters.

"Six Days, Seven Nights" essentially used the Islands as a backdrop for a stranded-in-paradise fantasy.

The recently released (and critically panned) "The Big Bounce" put benevolent white guy Owen Wilson in a position to help Hawaiian activists against a nasty white adversary. (White people, generally depicted as more proactive and powerful, are none-theless just as easily stereotyped.)

"Blue Crush," while providing a slightly more informed look at local surfers — it was based on a journalist's work, and recognized the class differences at play on the Islands — still resorted to a convenient stereotype of local male surfers as territorial bullies.

"Shallow Hal," the Jack Black vehicle, wasn't set in Hawai'i, but it included a "Hawaiian" character physically similar to Israel Kamakawiwo'ole who reinforced the image of Polynesians as serene, overweight and largely inactive.

"50 First Dates" fits squarely in this company. Sandler films have an intensely loyal following precisely because they are unapologetically over-the-top in their humor and sentimentality, and no one is accusing Sandler, a frequent visitor to Hawai'i, or anyone involved with the film of deliberately portraying Hawai'i and its people in a demeaning light.

In fact, it could be argued that Sandler's goofy bayou characters in "The Waterboy" were drawn even more coarsely.

"Oddly enough, 'The Waterboy' is remembered fairly fondly in Louisiana, particularly among college-age students, said film critic Michael Kleinschrodt of the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

That's the way many in Hawai'i see this film, too. Sandler's film was warmly received by most guests at its advance screenings in Honolulu.

"It's just a good-fun movie," said Danilo Perez, 31. "You cannot take it too seriously."

It will be interesting to see if Hawai'i's portrayal on the small screen is any better. Two new network TV shows, "Hawai'i" (formerly "Pearl City") and "O'ahu" are getting set for production.

Auditions for "Hawai'i" were recently held here. Among the roles available were "a heavy-set Samoan type."

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