This year’s 35th Hawai‘i International Film Festival featured numerous thought-provoking films. Because of Hawai‘i’s large API population, most movies hailed from Asia and Pacific regions, reflecting the cultures, ethnicities and languages of their locales. Below are some documentaries to watch for when they surface in the Northwest for release.

Screen Shot 2015-12-13 at 12.01.57 PM
Poster for Tyrus Courtesy Photo

Two captivating visual artists are the subjects of two different docs. While both suffered from oppression, one remains openly defiant—the other, quietly valiant.

Audience Award-winning Tyrus is the tale of 104-year old Chinese American Tyrus Wong. Director Pamela Tom weaves appearances by Tyrus, his family members and former co-workers, and historian Lisa See into a solid chronicle.

In 1919, nine-year old Tyrus left Guangzhou with his father never to see his mother or sister again. Because of the Chinese Exclusionary Act, he was detained at Angel Island and forced to wait months before his dad was allowed to collect him. Not particularly academically inclined, Tyrus discovered he enjoyed artwork. When his father pushed him to practice Chinese calligraphy, he developed an interest in brush painting. After attending art school on a scholarship, Tyrus landed a job at Disney Studios as an “in-betweener,” sketching hundreds of images that created the movements of Mickey Mouse. “I hated that job,” he says. In 1942, Tyrus was assigned to paint background scenes for the groundbreaking animation, Bambi. It was a pivotal moment during a time when overt racism towards Chinese Americans was prevalent. Yet Tyrus was able to carve out a career as a celebrated Hollywood artist. Shrugging off the racial slurs he endured back then, Tyrus says he doesn’t like to think about the discrimination he experienced because “it’s not good for my health.” Despite his brilliant craftsmanship, renowned exhibitions, and artistic achievements, Tyrus remains humble, insisting he’s “not that talented” and attributing his success to “luck” and “hard work.”

* * *

 Screenshot from the preview of I am Sun Mu, a documentary about a North Korean artist. • Courtesy Photo
Screenshot from the preview of I am Sun Mu, a documentary about a North Korean artist. • Courtesy Photo

Another film about another artist highlights the trials and tribulations of a Korean painter who escaped the North for the South, leaving behind family and friends. In I Am Sun Mu, filmmaker Adam Sjoberg brings the viewer along on a countdown to the day of the artist’s opening exhibit in Beijing.

In the tension-filled time leading up to the show, cameras follow Sun Mu hunched over canvasses or installing his artwork while constantly monitoring his surroundings. By the film’s end, his paranoia reveals itself to have been justified. Formerly a propaganda artist for the North, Sun Mu’s campy poster-style art is reminiscent of American 1970s pop culture albeit incorporating exceptionally disquieting messages. Employing tones of blazing reds and hot pinks, he paints adorable North Korean children frolicking in their bright blue school uniforms showing off exaggerated smiles. His illustrations mocking North Korean leaders are powerfully effective. Upon a closer look at a portrait of Kim Jong Il, a disturbing observation about the Korean flag displayed behind him is noted. As the pressure builds to opening day, Sun Mu keeps his face hidden behind a large hat, always turned away from the camera, and using only his pseudonym that translates to “no boundaries.” Passionate about sharing his singular vision of North Korea, he risks all to share it.

* * *

Image of debris that landed in Forks, Wash. following the March 11, 2011 tsunami • Courtesy Photo
Image of debris that landed in Forks, Wash. by John Anderson following the March 11, 2011 tsunami • Courtesy Photo

When the catastrophic tsunami battered Japan in 2011, not only were 15,000 lives lost but so were precious possessions belonging to countless victims. In Lost and Found, a neatly unfolding documentary, several North Americans (from Canada, Alaska and Washington) find objects belonging to Japanese that landed on their beaches. Attempting to return them to their rightful owners is both time-consuming and gratifying. Referred to as debris by media, most of the items are highly personal and urge forth memories for those who have been left with very few of them. A tearful reunion between Japanese and their belongings brought back by strangers who traveled across the sea to make their offerings is incredibly moving.

Co-director John Choi told the HIFF audience that being his own director of photography and living with participants during filming lent an intimacy that is easily seen onscreen. The documentary will air on television during the fifth anniversary of the tsunami, March 11, 2016.

* * *

 Still from the film Waiting for John. Every year, the John Frum Movement paints USA on their backs and chests as a sign of respect and brotherhood with America • Photo by Jessica Sherry
Still from the film Waiting for John. Every year, the John Frum Movement paints USA on their backs and chests as a sign of respect and brotherhood with America • Photo by Jessica Sherry

In the village of Lamakara, on the Pacific island of Tanna in the Vanuatu chain, an unusual religious belief has existed since WWII. Waiting for John is an extraordinary documentary about a “cargo cult.” When inhabitants of Tanna made contact with the American military during their occupation, they saw for the first time airplanes, refrigerators, trucks and canned food. Ever since, they’ve been praying for the return of the mysterious figure, John Frum, whom they believe will liberate them from poverty with material goods. Praying in sacred spaces, the believers march, and sing every Friday night for the return of their “god” and his American cargo. But the fervently faithful are at odds with another group who were converted by Christian missionaries and have banished the “cargo cult.”

Director Jessica Sherry graciously allows the people of Tanna to tell their stories in their own words. Ironically, despite the group division, joyous music abounds. Asked to explain, Sherry states, “Tanna is generally a very happy place, especially when the harvest is good and there is enough food for everyone. The people have a strong sense of community and culture and … these traits can be a foundation for happiness.” She adds that the John Frum Movement “has brought the people strength and the ability to resist repression throughout history.”

For more arts stories, click here

Previous articleAnnouncement: Open position on the International Special Review District Board
Next article‘How Does Anybody Become An Artist?’: An Interview with Allen Say