Hiram Fong became the first Asian American U.S. Senator when he was elected to represent Hawaii in 1959 and he became the 50th State’s last Republican Senator (thus far) when his final term ended in 1977. Roughly the same period is covered in this thriller of real estate development and cultural identity. Misfortune struck the Kanekoa and Coyle families in 1959 and in continues to compound twelve years later in Brian Kohne’s Kuleana (trailer here), which opens tomorrow throughout Hawaii and on Guam.
As children, Nohea Kanekoa and Kimberley Coyle played warrior and princess together. Then she disappeared one fateful night, supposedly the victim of an abduction. Kanekoa’s conveniently missing father was the prime suspect, but the real villain was Coyle’s abusive Anglo father Victor, a mobbed up real estate developer.
Flashforward to 1971. After his lower leg was amputated in Vietnam, Kanekoa works at a luxury tourist hotel, at least on the days his Uncle Bossy hasn’t fired him. It is he who discovers the body when Rose Coyle, Kimberley’s mother, coincidentally turns up dead after turning state’s evidence against her husband. The prodigal daughter sensed her mother was in danger, but she came out of hiding too late to save her. Frankly, it takes a while to convince Kanekoa she is indeed the long presumed dead Kim Coyle. Together, they will try to take down her father and start leveling their families’ karma.
It is easy to see why the Hawaiian Chamber of Commerce would support Kuleana, because its message is obvious: move to Hawaii and never age another day in your life. Aside from Nohea and Kimberly, who appear as children in 1959 and world-weary adults in 1971, every other character looks completely untouched by the passage of time. As a result, it is often difficult to distinguish the flashbacks from the 1970’s era timeline. Viewers will also do a double take when Ms. Rose (a distractingly young-looking Kristina Anapau, who also serves as an executive producer) visits her husband’s nemesis, Det. Tulba, to drop a dime, coiffed and outfitted like the Black Dahlia.
As a crooked land use thriller (begging for a Chinatown comparison), Kuleana is pretty underwhelming stuff. It is a shame, because the cast is much better than the material they have to work with. Moronai Kanekoa and Sonya Balmores show some real presence and charisma as the adult (namesake) Kanekoa and Coyle. There are also some memorably colorful supporting turns from Vene Chun, Branscombe “He Looks Familiar” Richmond, and Steven Dascoulias, as Uncle Bossy, the local crime boss’s chief henchman (known as “The Moke”), and Chad Blake, a sleazy yet oddly principled attorney, respectively. However, they are all struggling with a dubious narrative that manages to be simplistic and also logically-challenged, simultaneously.
Of course, Kohne and cinematographer Dan Hersey fully capitalize on Hawaii’s stunning natural beauty, because it would be madness not to. For real authenticity, the soundtrack also features Willie K’s blues-flavored Hawaiian music. It looks good and sounds good, but it can’t get the job done as a mystery-thriller, which is a serious drawback. Kohne and company mean well, but we just can’t recommend Kuleana when it opens tomorrow (3/30) in Pacific theaters.