Sweet-natured, formulaic and ripe for an American remake, director Sang-il Lee's fact-based comedy-drama revolves around a dying mining town and the faux-Hawaiian theme park that just might be the locals' financial salvation.
Japan, 1965: The Joban mine has provided employment for generations of families from Iwaki, a chilly, cheerless town in the northern mountains it was even once visited by the emperor. But rumors that it's going to close are everywhere, and despite reassurance from management, layoffs begin within months. Teenage Kimiko Tanikawa's (Yu Aoi) father died in a mining accident, her mother and older brother still work there, and odds are that's where she'll end up as well. But her best friend, Sanae, has an idea: She's found a flier announcing auditions for dancers at the Hawaii Center, a theme park being built just outside Iwaki. Their families and neighbors scoff at the idea that some kind of silly vacation spot could ever provide real jobs, and most including Kimiko's no-nonsense mother and Sanae's brutal father regard hula dancing as little better than stripping and wouldn't hear of their daughters prancing around half naked. But Sanae and Kimiko secretly try out along with a handful of other girls, including the hulking Sayuri (Shizuyo Yamazaki) and a feisty single mother. To say they're a sorry bunch doesn't begin to describe their nonexistent dance skills. But Mr. Yashimoto (Ittoku Kishibe), a representative of the Hawaii Center who slinks around town with his regulation hibiscus-patterned shirt hidden under a carefully zipped windbreaker, hires a famous dancer from Tokyo, Ms. Madoka Hirayama (Yasuko Matsuyuki), to teach his recruits the hula, and her drunken arrival causes quite a stir. In her brightly striped silk coat and movie-star sunglasses, she epitomizes the term "not from around these parts," and many townspeople resent her big-city ways and high-handed attitude. Sanae is forced to stop her classes when her father is fired and takes a new job out of town, but Kimiko persists, even after her mother throws her out of the house.
It goes without saying that Ms. Madoka, the aspiring hula girls and their families eventually mend their differences and work together to make the Hawaii Center a success, but U.S. audiences may find themselves impatient with the leisurely way Lee a Japanese director of Korean descent lets the tale unfold. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh