Apart from some PBS documentaries on the fate of the royal family of Hawaii and the annexation of their kingdom by the Americans, there are virtually no movies about the history and mythology of the Hawaiian people.

Princess Ka’iulani  (2010)

 This movie was playing in Honolulu in June 2010.  It is the story of Princess Ka’iulani (1875-1899). Beginning in 1889 at the Iolani Palace during the reign of King David Kalakaua (1836-91), there is a public ceremony in which the young princess has been appointed to throw the switch for the electrification of the palace. The celebratory moment is interrupted by an armed militia invading the grounds, demanding changes in the government. The princess has lost her mother in childhood and her British father finds it necessary to take her away to England for safety. She is placed in the care of an aristocratic family and put in a repressive girls school. There is a young man at the manor house with whom she slowly and inevitably falls in love. He proposes marriage and she accepts (she would be about 15).  Too much valuable screen time is spent on romance.

Messages from home are intercepted and she is kept unaware of political reverses in Hawaii. When King Kalakaua dies in 1891, she is told the bad news. The King’s sister, Lydia Lili’uokalani (1838-1917) has been made Queen and the Princess learns that she has been named successor to the Queen. With her father’s help, she travels to the United States and meets with President Grover Cleveland in a contrived scene where she manages to charm him into helping her beleaguered country.  She returns to Hawaii to find the monarchy abolished (1893) and her prospects limited. The film ends with the arrival of her British fiancé, who has vain hopes of bringing her back to England. Bravely she resolves to carry on alone. The real events are more complicated, but this is the gist of it. The title role was played by Q’orianka Kilcher, who played Pocahontas in The New World. This film needed a steadier hand at the helm.

Beyond Paradise (1998)

This film turns up in searches for movies about Hawaii but it has the look of amateur footage from three fun-loving guys. It has not been available from any of my sources. Instead, the searches lead to some bitter videos related to the Hawaiian Sovereignty Movement and resentments of native Hawaiians against mainland intruders. Their arguments provide a balance to the tourism videos.

The Descendants  (2011)

George Clooney heads the cast of this dissection of contemporary Hawaiian society. A connection to the land and people of Hawaii is made through Matt King’s (Clooney) ancestral lineage reaching back to island royalty. The social and emotional landscape of this film, however, is firmly located in affluent American realities. Matt’s wife has been injured in a boating accident off of Waikiki and is near death. He has two daughters, aged 10 and 17, who are foul-mouthed and disrespectful – as we have come to expect in most portrayals of the modern family.

Matt learns from the older daughter that his wife had been cheating on him. He and his daughters, along with a stupid kid who is the daughter’s casual boyfriend, go off to Kauai following the elusive trail of the wife’s lover. There is a subplot involving the sale of a large land trust owned by Matt’s family. The land happens to be on Kauai and it will be discovered that the lover is peripherally involved in the real estate deal. In the end, there are tearful goodbyes to the wife and mother. The lover does not come to the hospital but his wife does. Speaking for myself, there was very little emotional tug in the formulaic ending because it was so hard to care very much for these people. At a deeper level, there is a sense that we are looking at a profoundly alienated society and that the liberal use of the iconic f-word is the signal for the proliferation of this phenomenon. It is a symptomatic experience to watch a wife and mother die in the presence of her family and not feel compassion. Matt decides in the eleventh hour to protect the Kauai land from the developers.

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