•Review Originally Written March 2018• Writer & director Brian Kohne’s “Kuleana” is an ambitious mystery/drama, that has the makings of a Hollywood film. It can be defined as a tropical noir. Kohne has written and directed the “LA Confidential” of Hawaii. His camerawork is stunning, the acting is fantastic and the period piece re-creation is as good or better than anything you’ll see in feature films, straight out of Hollywood.
Being born and raised in Hawaii. It’s always a special feeling, a special emotion that both a lot of locals and I, get when we see our home land in a major Hollywood movies. Hawaii has been the setting for the backdrop for films since 1937 when Bing Crosby filmed the musical “Waikiki Wedding”. Over the course of 80 plus years productions have filmed in Hawaii few and far between. It’s certainly not overused or as popular as cities like New York or Los Angeles.
In recent years Hawaii has become the destination for Hollywood movie making. Films like “From Here To Eternity”, “Blue Hawaii”, “Paradise Hawaiian Style”, “Hawaii”, “South Pacific”, “50 First Dates”, “Pearl Harbor” and “Aloha”. Even the old and new reboots of the tv series “Magnum PI” and “Hawaii Five-O”. A lot of these films are much more respectful of the local people and the islands than their given credit for. Except for the fact that Spam gets an excessive amount of product placement.
However no one gets it more authentic or as accurate as Writer/Director Brian Kohne, a Detroit native who moved to Maui in 1969. He started making movies at Baldwin High School when he was 16. In my research for this article, I found interviews where Kohne has said: “I’ve always loved cinema but the first time I really fully understood the impact of cinema was when I saw “Airport ‘75” (The thriller from 1974 starring Charleston Heston and Sid Ceaser). He really started to understand the art form and what kind of capacity it had to move and transcend. He ended up moving from Maui to California to pursue college. Once he graduated he moved back to Maui after playing competitive soccer and working in Silicon Valley.
Now fulfilling his dream of making motion pictures. He released his first film the locally produced and shot screwball comedy “Get A Job” in 2011. His sophomore film is set on Maui in two different timelines in 1971 and 1959 (when Hawai’i became a StateHood). The film is called “Kuleana” (which is the Hawaiian word for responsibility).
Kohne’s film is an ambitious mystery/drama that unlike his first film, is very polished and has the makings of a Hollywood film. It can be defined as a tropical noir. Kohne has written and directed the “LA Confidential” of Hawaii. This is a big deal for Hawaii and local filmmaking. The last Hawaii film to reach the big screens was 2010’s “Princess Kaiulani” (also a great film).
“Kuleana” has received the 2017 Audience Choice Awards in the Santa Cruz Film Festival, the Maui Film Festival, and the San Antonio Film Festival, as well as “Best Feature” at the Tribal Film Festival in Oklahoma and “Best of Fest” in the Guam International Film Festival. With all of it’s praise it’s getting a wide release on March 30th, 2018.
I can see how a lot of little things won’t fully appeal to a mainland audience, but us locals who have lived in these islands will get the smallest details and will be more appealing to us, since we fully understand the way they talk in pidgin or the events about the Hawaiian culture. For outsiders “Kuleana” will get you caught up in the mystery of the story, the drama of the events that unfold and the will serve as a great history lesson of Hawaiian culture that Kohne has splattered throughout the film.
One of the films timelines takes place in 1971, where a disabled Vietnam vet named Nohea (played terrifically by Moronai Kanekoa) is an individual who is loaded with problems. Sporting an artificial leg, he’s forced to use a cane, but more worrisome is his dying grandmother and the enormous gambling debts owed to local crime lord Sheldon Zhang played in a truly magnificent turn by local comedian Mel Cabang.
The money he’s tried to win to help save his family’s land. Nohea is an honest man but burdened by his past. As a child (Ryan Ursula) in 1959, while Hawaii was is in the midst of a semisonic shift by Hawaii earning statehood. Nohea learns much from his father Bill Kanekoa (Kainoa Horcajo), including ‘kuleana’. His closest friend is Kim (Kealani Warner), and the two play in the lush forests and pristine waters. However, when Kim mysteriously disappears, and questions arise about Nohea’s own father, his future is haunted, made all the more so, when back in 1971, Kim’s mother Rose Coyle (Kristina Anapau) seems to have commited suicide by jumping off a hotel balcony.
In the middle of it all is local detective Tulba (Comedian Augie Tulba aka: Augie T) on the case of Rose’s death. Kim returns within in the story, now as an adult (Sonya Balmores). She’s strictly native while Nohea, who doesn’t recognize her at first, has lost touch with much of his culture, working at the hotel where Rose died. There, he caters to rich white people from the mainland who are spooked by the US Navy’s use of the islands as a testing ground for low yield bombs and complain when local kids take a dip in the pool.
Kohne uses the historical intrigue of the islands to revolve his mystery around. He details the corruption of landowners looking to exploit the land for profit. Much like Cameron Crowe did to great effect in “Aloha”. The film itself has that island laid back attitude that feels right in place for the setting, making this easy to follow that mixes Hawaiian lore and culture with a conventional crime drama. The story feels more in tune for an episode of “Magnum PI” or “Hawaii Five O”.
The standouts of the film is lead star Moronai Kanekoa, resembling a local Matt Dillion. He holds the picture together extremely well. Kanekoa has done a little acting before in the daytime soap opera “As The World Turns” and a guest spot on ABC’s “Castle”. The real stealer of the show here is local comedian Mel Cabang playing a crime boss. First thing that came to mind as I mesmerized at his performance was Frank Costello the crime boss played by Jack Nicholson in Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed”. For a local comedian performing in a role completely out of his wheel house, he brings to mind the laid back crime boss persona from the great Jack Nicholson.
The film’s original score is by legendary Maui recording artist Willie K and island newcomer Johnny Wilson. Featuring a hypnotic soundtrack with Hawai’i classics of the late sixties from artists like the Sons of Hawaii, Sunday Manoa, and Marlene Sai, along with hits from Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade Of Pale” used to great effect, Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” which opens the film, The Platters and one hit wonders Climax with their hit “Precious and Few”.
The cinematography is stunning by Dan Hersey and slick editing by Adi Ell-Ad gives the film a nice tense pace and easy laid back flow of the islands. By far the one thing that impressed me the most is the camera work of Brian Kohne. He storyboarded some breathtaking and stunning shots. This is the camera work of someone who has been doing this for decades. Kohne is completely set to hit the big time. He can easily follow in the foot steps of another Maui filmmaker Dustin Daniel Cretton writer/director of “Short Term 12” and “The Glass Castle”.
Kohne has every right to earn a shot in Hollywood. His camera work in “Kuleana” is clear evidence of that. Kohne has said that he intends to make more movies. He is working on one that’s not a Hawaii story, but he says: “I’m working on a few other Hawaii stories too”. When his next film comes along I’ll be sure to see it because this is not only a giant leap forward for Kohne’s career but for also Hawaii filmmaking as a whole. He has said he set out to have people leaving the theater asking “What is my Kuleana ?” I can tell you if you haven’t seen the film yet. Then it’s your “Kuleana” to go out and seek this one out.
GRADE: ★★★★☆ (4 out of 5)