Photo caption: From left to right, Jessica Mauboy, Miranda Tapsell, Deborah Mailman and Shari Sebbens sparkle as “The Sapphires.” Photo credit: Lisa Tomasetti / The Weinstein Company.
Whether it’s the up-tempo music, the fresh-faced acting or the picturesque backgrounds of New South Wales and Ho Chi Minh City, “The Sapphires” is a film that exudes sheer joy. Although it suffers from some technical flaws, its feel-good theme makes up for them. The diverse script is based on the true story of Aboriginal women who learned to sing American R&B in order to entertain mostly African-American soldiers deployed in Vietnam.
It’s 1968 and the U.S. is fighting in Southeast Asia with a disproportionate number of black soldiers on their side. Meanwhile, Australian Aborigines have just won the right to vote in their own country. In a small Outback town, three sisters sweetly harmonize a country and western tune in an amateur contest. Although they easily beat their competition, they’re booed and taunted because of their ethnicity. When a white piano player named Dave (Chris O’Dowd) protests the inequity, he’s promptly fired. But before the sisters can make it back home, he becomes their manager refashioning them into an Ikettes knock-off complete with go-go boots, miniskirts and beehive hairdos.
Explaining, he tells the girls, “My skin may be pale, but my blood runs Negro.”
It’s soon evident that each sister (and cousin Kay who joins them) has her own personality and problems. The eldest, Gail (Deborah Mailman), is so overprotective of her younger siblings that Dave cautions her about being too much of a “mama bear.” Flirtatious Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell), in the middle, enjoys male companionship too much for her own good.
As for Julie (Jessica Mauboy), the youngest but already a mother, she yearns to show off her magical voice, but is overruled by a demanding Gail who wants the lead for herself. (In real life, actress and singer Mauboy is the daughter of an Aboriginal mother from the KuKu Yalanji people and an Indonesian father from West Timor).
Meanwhile, cousin Kay (Shari Sebbens) still suffers as one of Australia’s “stolen generations”: the result of a government mandate from 1958 to 1979 that took lighter-skinned children from their birth parents in order to give them a more “white upbringing.” The goal was to eventually purge the blackness out of the country. Although Kay’s issues are the most serious, not a lot of time is spent on them. Instead, Kay rediscovers her roots in a new relationship with a black soldier.
Unfortunately, the only Vietnamese clearly visible in scenes of Vietnam is the arm candy of the solider who hired the girls. The African-American soldiers, ironically, are played by Sudanese men living in Sydney, one of the world’s most multicultural cities.
While the real Sapphires were two Aboriginal sisters who did tour Vietnam, they later became community activists along with their two cousins. To this day, they still work on behalf of underprivileged indigenous Australians.
From Studio Ghibli a new feature anime awkwardly blooms with the clumsy English version title of “From Up on Poppy Hill.” Directed by Goro Miyazaki, son of legendary Hayao Miyazaki who wrote the screenplay, this post-war story features a fatherless teenager, Umi, running her grandmother’s Yokohama boarding house while her mother studies in America. With responsibilities for grocery shopping, meal preparation and caring for younger siblings as a high school student with homework, Umi is a borderline exploited child.
Each morning, Umi (which means “sea” in Japanese) hoists two flags in her front yard overlooking the ocean in hopes that her sailor father will see them and return home someday. Even though he’s been declared dead, she never gives up. One day, a young man at school named Shun catches her eye, but a later revelation about his true identity drives them apart. Shun is not shy about controversy and, along with fellow male students, battles the school administration that want to tear down their clubhouse to make way for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Soon, the girls join the boys in renovating their digs.
Although “Poppy Hill’s” illustrations are enchanting, some parts of its storyline seem bizarre. Does the subject of incest belong in animation, even the hint of it? The music is also entrancing, but the dubbed English version of the movie is jarring as Japanese names are mispronounced by the likes of American actors Sarah Bolger and Beau Bridges. For 1960s nostalgia, Kyu Sakamoto’s famous “Ue o Muite Aruko,” renamed “Sukiyaki” in the U.S., is played several times.
While “Poppy” is pretty, “Sapphires” shines. Either way, both films are entertaining.
“The Sapphires” opens April 5th at Seven Gables Theatre in Seattle.
“From Up on Poppy Hill” opened March 29th at The Egyptian Theatre in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood.