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Waikiki (2020). Film still courtesy of filmmaker Christopher Kahunahana. A Native Hawaiian person looks out from a car window in pain.

Issue 003 Fall 2021 Essays

Waikīkī and Its Discontents

Chris Kahunahana’s Hawai’i

by Jeff Chang

Waikiki (2020). Film still courtesy of filmmaker Christopher Kahunahana.

The world of Christopher Kahunahana’s first full-length feature film, Waikīkī (2020), is far from the one of the American imagination. It’s not a White Lotus all-inclusive resort experience where malihini1 seek enlightenment and the perfect tan while Native Hawaiians serve as unseen help. Nor is it a Hawaii Five-O amusement ride for white heroes propped up by underpaid Brown sidekicks. To the director, these are all foreign desires, invasive notions.

In Kahunahana’s world, visitors enjoy the version of life they can afford—lying on a man-made beach, taking selfies with turtles, or ziplining through sacred sites. Native Hawaiians try to secure a golden ticket for the privilege of serving the malihini. At the same time, Zuckerbergian real estate speculation intensifies displacement—making Kanaka Maoli people,2 homeless in their homeland, improvise shelter in cars and tents, in beach parks, on the countryside, and the thicket of trails hidden along the slopes of Diamond Head.

“Hawai’i has always been Hollywood’s backdrop,” Kahunahana says. “That façade has always been present. I’m just pulling it back: Who’s behind the curtain? What’s going on for real? In Hawai’i, you can’t just get by. You have to actually make a shit ton of money to begin to appear to be normal, to have a roof over your head. Everyone is working two, three jobs.”

Waikīkī’s Native Hawaiian protagonist, Kea, played with profound sensitivity by Danielle Zalopany, sleeps in a van, bathes in a beach shower, and holds down three jobs. In the morning, she is an ‘ōlelo3 schoolteacher, an exemplar of the ongoing Hawaiian cultural renaissance. But the rest of her days are spent servicing the American dream and its ceaseless waves of believers, deplaning into the airport every hour of every day. 

In 1993, around the hundredth anniversary of the US takeover of the islands, the Native Hawaiian scholar and activist Haunani-Kay Trask had written boldly, presciently, and shockingly of the brutal impact of tourism, which in 2019 brought the equivalent of seven times the entire population in visitors to the islands.

“To most Americans . . . Hawai’i is theirs: to use, to take, and, above all, to fantasize about long after the experience,” Trask wrote. “Mostly a state of mind, Hawai’i is the image of escape from the rawness and violence of daily American life. Hawai’i—the word, the vision, the sound in the mind—is the fragrance and feel of soft kindness. Above all, Hawai’i is ‘she,’ the Western image of the Native ‘female’ in her magical allure.”4

This is the role Kea takes up at night. As a Waikīkī showroom hula dancer, Kea sells the American dream—the “magic of Waikīkī,” as the song goes—back to bourgeois tourists. She ends each night as a Chinatown karaoke bar hostess catering to a clientele of unsavory white men who bought the bar a long time ago. Kea cannot find a place to call home. She is separated from her daughter and trying to escape an abusive boyfriend and a family that has let her down. She is always perched on the precipice of catastrophe. 

Fleeing her abusive boyfriend, she hits a homeless man with her van and quickly begins to unravel. The man she hits, Wo, becomes a mostly silent witness to her descent, and yet he may not even be real. Even the land, the water, and the statues feel her bottoming—in one affecting scene, she encounters a monument of Queen Lili’uokalani and considers both their fates.5 As the movie builds to a stunning conclusion, Kea’s external and internal worlds implode into each other.

A young person looks out of a car window, seeming to be drinking a fast food drink from a straw, while in the reflection of the window we can see what she may be looking at — palm trees against the blue sky.
Waikiki (2020). Film still courtesy of filmmaker Christopher Kahunahana.

Kahunahana’s road to Waikīkī was long and winding. In the 1990s, Movie Museum owner Dwight Damon exposed him to his personal stash of the works of Akira Kurosawa and John Cassavetes, and rare classics like Héctor Babenco’s Pixote (1981) and Mikhail Kalatozov’s Soy Cuba (1964). To continue feeding his cinema jones, Kahunahana started the Underground Film Festival on O’ahu in 1995.

Disillusioned with the competition for low-wage tourism jobs, he moved to New York and, later, San Francisco, where he ran a nightclub and an art gallery. He returned to Honolulu to join friends in opening the Next Door nightclub in a then still-shunned Chinatown. His success—he featured the likes of DJ Kool Herc, Kid Cudi, and Diplo—helped transform the red-light neighborhood into a destination, now an officially designated “Arts District.” In 2014, he sold the club and went all in on filmmaking, landing the first of a set of prestigious fellowships with the Sundance Institute.

Waikīkī began as a script he wrote called “Karaoke Kings,” based on the bar next door to the Next Door, which held monthly karaoke contests, offering a week-long open drink tab as the prize. The regulars inspired the characters of Kea, Wo, and Amy, the bar owner. “You just learn their stories and you start feeling for them,” Kahunahana says. “One little wrong decision or stuff didn’t go their way or if there was no one to take care of them after a health issue, and it’s very simple to cross over that line, especially when the cost of living is so exorbitant.”

He was increasingly drawn to the character of Kea, and the idea for Waikīkī began to grow. Current events accelerated the process. In 2014, Native Hawaiian protestors succeeded in temporarily halting expansion of the Thirty Meter Telescope atop the sacred mountain of Mauna Kea. (The character Kea’s name means “white” and is a subtle reference to the mountain’s snow cap.) Their struggle to stop further development became the Pacific analogue to the Standing Rock movement. Kahunahana, along with many other ‘ōiwi filmmakers and creatives, would heed the call to come to the mauna. Other incidents, such as the battle between homeless campers and a coalition of police, surfers, and residents for control of the Diamond Head hillside, affirmed the importance of the new direction.

The line between fiction and reality blurred. As Kahunahana finally lined up money for production, Zalopany was offered a solid union job at Pearl Harbor. She decided to take both the job and the movie. “They would start at 4:00 in the morning, and she would come straight to set. We’d shoot all night,” Kahunahana says. Between scenes, she slept in the van. “Dani was living as Kea would.” 

Having once lived at the edge of homelessness, Kahunahana bemoans “the global demand for paradise” that drives displacement. He says that after casting Zalopany, his second big decision was to buy the van. “I was like, Yo, it’s going to function as the picture car. Prep car. Also mobile studio. And if this movie doesn’t go anywhere, I got somewhere to live. My plan B: the van.”

An empty road in Honolulu at nighttime, lit up by street lights.
Waikiki (2020). Film still courtesy of filmmaker Christopher Kahunahana.

For cinema from Hawai’i, Kahunahana’s unorthodox story and work may mark a breakthrough. Waikīkī, described by Filmmaker Magazine as the first Native Hawaiian–directed fiction feature film, won Best Feature and Cinematography from the Grand Juries of the 2020 Hawai’i International Film Festival and the 2020 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. Fijian filmmaker and scholar Vilsoni Hereniko called it “the most important feature film ever by a Native Hawaiian.”

Until now, the nonfiction form has dominated Native Hawaiian and island film. Kahunahana describes the work of Puhipau and Joan Lander’s collective Nā Maka o ka ‘Āina6 as a major influence. More recently, continental-born Anthony Banua-Simon’s Cane Fire (2020) and Local Japanese American filmmaker Chris Makoto Yogi’s Occasionally, I Saw Glimpses of Hawai’i (2016) have deconstructed the North American gaze. Maoli director Ciara Lacy, Los Angeles–based Tadashi “Tad” Nakamura, and Local filmmaker Michael Inouye have made powerful contemporary explorations of incarceration, cultural recovery, and the rising social movements in the islands.7

The University of Hawai’i’s Academy of Creative Media8 and the local network ‘Ōiwi TV have been hubs for an emerging generation of talented filmmakers, including Erin Lau, Ty Sanga, Justyn Ah Chong, and ‘Āina Paikai. Standout works like Lau’s piece The Moon and the Night (2018), which explores intergenerationality, masculinity, and responsibility, and Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu’s animated film Kapaemahu (2020), which refigures gender, healing, and Hawaiian history in ancient ‘ōlelo, are part of the promising new wave of Native Hawaiian fiction.

“Storytelling’s in our blood. Everything’s mo’olelo,”9 Kahunahana says. “That’s how we share. That’s our culture. So how the hell do we not transition into making narrative features?”

Native Hawaiian film announces the urgencies of the moment, but also the history of violent marginalization, suppression, and erasure of ‘oiwi cultural practices, expressions, and knowledges. Its push for cultural justice—the restoration of ways of living, being, and sense making, and the right to define a people’s identity and be seen in their full complex humanity—is always timely. It responds to the materiality and the psychology of colonization. But its answers, however contingent, migrate to the realm of the spiritual because they speak beyond the base objectification of our lives.

Native Hawaiian film announces the urgencies of the moment, but also the history of violent marginalization, suppression, and erasure of ‘oiwi cultural practices, expressions, and knowledges.

For most of the twentieth century the Hawaiian language was banned from island schools, part of an Americanization process that accompanied the dispossession of Hawaiian lands. One place where ‘ōlelo—and the native cosmovisions embedded within—persisted was in music and hula. Waikīkī’s careful musical selection charts an arc of colonization’s impact. Mary Kawena Pūku’i’s 1930s children’s oli, “Ke Ao Nani,” gives way to the wistful melancholy of Na Leo Pilimehana’s version of Andy Cummings’ 1946 hapa-haole10 classic, “Waikiki,” written at the height of Americanization after World War II. The movie closes with Brother Noland’s 1980 protest song, “Look What They’ve Done.”

But even in English-language songs like “Waikiki,” Hawaiians embedded kaona, hidden meanings. So as Kea performs for malihini, she helps summon a Native Hawaiian imagination of Waikīkī—in which streams poured down from fertile mountains and valleys into a latticework of taro lo’i (farms) and fishponds, fronted by a long strip of beach where queens and kings kept lush gardens and commoners gathered daily to surf, fish, and flirt with each other. Waikīkī’s name itself referred to the water springs of the area, known as “the spouting spray.”

But to haoles11 with God and money on their minds, this land was just a muggy swamp. After their ships brought disease-ridden mosquitos and the Bible thumpers declared Hawaiians’ sporting ways in the surf lewd, barbaric, and ungodly, they set about to remake it. They built racially exclusive hotels and surf clubs that required full-body clothing. They built a canal to drain the area and conscripted the farmers, fishers, and surfers into laboring in their economy. Waikīkī became their playground resort, and the American dream of Hawai’i was marketed across the continent through the music and movies of Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley, even the Brady Bunch.

The royal estates and local markers are long gone, leaving behind their traces in the street names malihini can’t pronounce, and the words, music, and dances of songs they don’t understand. In the early 1970s, the martyred singer and activist George Helm12 (a family friend of the Kahunahanas) introduced a song that Queen Lili’uokalani had written of her Waikīkī garden, “Ku’u Pua I Paoakalani” by saying, “It was written in a prison. That prison was the ‘Iolani Palace. . . . She wrote this song for a place in Waikīkī that is now the location of the Holiday Inn hotel.” Those who knew understood that Helm, who sang in a downtown bar not far from the palace, was referring obliquely—and not at all nicely—to the Americans’ imprisonment of the queen. For Hawaiians ensnared by the present-day carceral system, the allusions remain all too real.

Kahunahana drops kaona even in the landscape scenes that stitch together the narrative. For instance, a breathtaking shot of mountain mist connects to shots of ‘auwai stream flows—moving wai to kai, mountain to sea, in the traditional Hawaiian way of thinking of land “division,” as opposed to the American capitalist way. But the water’s journey also tells a story. In the uplands, it flows freely, but as it proceeds toward the sea it’s increasingly contained by concrete ditches. It ends up in the legendarily toxic Ala Wai Canal, constructed to allow hotels to be built atop the fertile mud. In this way, Kahunahana connects Kea’s mental and economic breakdown to an entire history of colonization.

A Native Hawaiian person sits on the ground in the midday sunlight. They have their hands raised slightly, parallel to the ground.
Waikiki (2020). Film still courtesy of filmmaker Christopher Kahunahana.

In the summer of 2021, as the pandemic briefly waned, US tourists poured back into Hawai’i like a firehose whiplashing at high blast. These visitors encountered long food lines, rental car shortages, and beaches packed with their kind—unmasked, sunburnt, and behaving badly. Everywhere they exploded at beachboys and hostesses, drivers and chambermaids: Where is the paradise we purchased?

On the other side, something finally cracked. Community leaders heard angry calls to limit tourism. Vendors chose to shut down during peak hours rather than serve ill-mannered visitors. Airlines texted travelers to expect airport delays because of protests. Legislators overrode a governor’s veto to defund the Hawai’i Tourist Authority. In the middle of it all, on the July Fourth weekend, word came down that Trask, the prophet of the Hawaiian resistance, had passed.

Kea’s journey climaxes in a surreal sequence set on Sand Island, the site of another historic clash between the state and Native Hawaiians. ‘Oiwi fishermen had built a traditional shoreline village in an area that the state wanted to redevelop as a beachfront park. The brutal evictions were captured in Victoria Keith’s film The Sand Island Story (1981).

Kahunahana means to connect that failed battle to the sprouting of exclusive high-rises in the Kaka’ako district across Honolulu Harbor. These condos are marketed to jet-setting Pacific elites who use them as investment properties or personal hotel rooms. They are prohibitively expensive for most island-born Locals and major factors in the skyrocketing cost of living.

The film inspires optimism about the future of Native Hawaiian cinema, but it also leaves uncomfortable questions about the future of Hawai’i. “People ask, ‘What do you have to do to be a filmmaker?’” Kahunahana says. “Honestly? Rule number one: stay alive. I’m like, fuck. I feel lucky to be alive, you know?”


1. Visitors or foreigners.

2. Native Hawaiian people, literally “true people.” Native Hawaiians also use the term “Ōiwi” or “Kanaka Ōiwi.”

3. The Native Hawaiian language.

4. From Haunani-Kay Trask’s essential 1993 book, From a Native Daughter (reprinted in 1999 by University of Hawai’i Press) and also excerpted here at Cultural Survival Quarterly:

5. Queen Lili’uokalani was the last Queen of Hawai’i, deposed by American capitalists backed by American troops hell-bent on expanding their sugar fortunes and forcing annexation.

6.  Nā Maka o ka ‘Āina’s best known works are Mauna Kea – Temple Under Siege (2005) and Act of War – The Overthrow of the Hawaiian Nation (1993).

7.  Lacy’s movies include the award-winning Out of State (2017) and This Is the Way We Rise (2021). Inouye’s Like a Mighty Wave (2019) can be seen online or on the Criterion Channel.

8.  The academy was founded in 2002 by Chris Lee, an accomplished Hollywood producer who came home in part to realize this vision.

9.  Story or record.

10. Literally meaning “half-white.” This name was given to the popular music of Hawai’i in vogue from the 1900s through the 1970s, almost always sung completely in English. The music—from “Waikiki” to Don Ho’s “Pearly Shells” and Kui Lee’s “I’ll Remember You”—served as a living advertisement for the tourist industry. Hula, too, was modified for Waikīkī showroom audiences, simplified and often speeded up. To this day, of course, the sound of hapa-haole music and image of hapa-haole hula form the bedrock of most touristic impressions of Hawaiian culture.

11. White people. Originally it meant foreigner, but it colloquially shifted in the context of colonization.

12. ‘Aina Paikai’s short film on Helm, Hawaiian Soul, debuted in 2020.