Starring: Yasuko Matsuyuki, Yû Aoi, Eri Tokunaga
Director: Lee Sang-il
Running Time: 120 mins
Hula Girls is a Japanese film about a group of women who train to be hula dancers under the tutelage of an expert from the big city, in order to create a major tourist attraction for their small and dying mining town.
I absolutely adored this film. In part a sweet and funny story of small town people with big ambitions, and in part a genuinely moving and enthralling drama with a lot of depth throughout, there’s so much to love about Hula Girls, and as it fluctuates between inspiring and uplifting highs and dramatic lows, it proves a thoroughly entertaining and engaging watch from beginning to end.
Now, you may be getting a bit of déjà vu reading the synopsis for this movie, and you wouldn’t be alone in that. Apart from the fact that the film follows the uniquely Japanese trend of a group of unlikely heroes partaking in an obscure activity together (see Let’s Go Jets, Waterboys, Swing Girls, Oppai Volleyball for more), it’s also very reminiscent of the British classic Brassed Off, about a group of dissatisfied miners who set up a brass band and tour the country.
The strange thing about this film, however, is that it’s based on a true story, and the similarities to movies of the past are purely coincidental. In that story, however, there’s so much fun and intrigue to be found, following the delightful story of a group of young women who seem unable to break out of their dull existence in a small mining town in rural northern Japan, as they come together and unexpectedly become a hula dancing troupe.
Now, you may think that sounds a little cheesy to make for an interesting film, but Hula Girls actually brings a lot more to the table than its central plot. Sure, the story of the girls learning to be hula dancers is pleasant to watch, but the real intrigue comes from the film’s analysis of countryside living, further put into perspective with contrasts to the modern world and the big city of the day.
Set in a small mining village in the 1960s, the movie gives a window into what it occasionally remarks as a rather backwards land. A tiny community still centred on traditional values, the very notion of a Hawaiian dance troupe popping up in the middle of their town immediately creates tensions amongst the locals.
What’s even more effective about the story is how it contrasts that traditional lifestyle with that of Tokyo life of the day, as the experienced hula dancer arrives from Tokyo to a sea of disapproving eyes. If you’ve ever seen Carmen Comes Home, an old Japanese film with a similar premise, then you’ll understand the main contrast, with a strong clash of cultures between those living in a large-scale, modern community, and those still living their lives in a way considered rather backwards at the time.
Throughout, the film paints a riveting portrait of both lifestyles, something that is further exemplified through all of the characters’ actions, and as such makes for a thoroughly engrossing watch throughout, occupying a major role at the centre of the story.
On the flipside, there is also a whole heap of more light-hearted humour to enjoy as well. While it’s not a film that’s entirely there to make you laugh out loud, the use of comedy throughout works wonders in getting you to really sympathise with the main characters as they undertake their unique project.
As a result, the movie is just as sweet and enjoyable as it is riveting to watch, and along with a whole host of excellent performances, as well as strong directing and cinematography that firmly lands you in the time period and setting, Hula Girls ultimately turns out to be a truly delightful watch, and that’s why I’m giving it an 8.2 overall.