Cinematic Releases: Kuleana (2018) - Reviewed

Ben reviews Kuleana

Brian Kohne’s film Kuleana is an interesting study in family and politics because it presents so many aspects to life that I hadn’t previously considered. But it also reminds us that we will defend what is ours at any cost with a great sense of responsibility. That word, responsibility, shines through in Mr. Kohne’s film as we are invited to explore a drama which spans two time periods.

The first time period is set in 1959 when opportunistic landowners were looking to make money off the native land, destroying paradise. These early scenes show the idyllic Maui, paradise unbroken, but with trouble on the horizon as we meet Nohea (Moronai Kanekoa) and Kim (Sonya Balmores), who became friends at a young age.

15 years later, they are reunited as they confront demons from the past. Kim has, sadly, experienced a troubled family life. Her mom, Rose (Kristina Anapau) married land developer Victor (Stefan C. Schaefer). Victor is an unscrupulous individual, especially when it comes to his family. Rose pays the ultimate price, but it is up to an older Nohea and Kim to solve the mystery that has afflicted his family and connects them to each other.

There is an authenticity to Mr. Kohne’s storyline, as he strikes the right balance between a murder-mystery and the importance of family and responsibility. I’ve never been to Hawaii, but the glimpses we’re given here only make me long for a visit.

This is also a very personal story, given the caliber of acting in the film. Ms. Balmores gives us an emotional and dramatic performance as she balances her need to protect herself from Victor while at the same time solving a family and, ultimately a political crisis. Mr. Kanekoa is a stand-out next to Ms. Balmores; the camera loves their presence together on the screen. Mr. Schaefer, who also produced the film, is very low-key, which serves his less-than-desirable character, even though I might have wanted more from his character. Marlene Sai has a small, but powerful presence on screen, but also in the lives of our characters. She is a good reminder of why experience matters.

On the technical side, Don Hersey’s cinematography plays into both timelines exceptionally well as we explore the seedy areas of Hawaii, along with the lush forests and the stunning resorts. The music also reflects the times the film is set as well as the situations we’re presented. Native music helps convey the sense of being on the island, thanks to the score by Willie K and Johnny Wilson. Period tunes are used to strengthen those ties.

As I prepped for this film, I was unaware of the U.S. military’s bombing range on native Hawaiian land. There were several scenes with the bombings which felt a little out of context. Mr. Kohne did address this in the film early on, which helped. A minor quibble, but it required me to learn more about the islands, its history and is yet another example where the U.S. was as bad as Victor in the film.

Nothing can take away from the beauty that is Hawaii. Brian Kohne’s film, Kuleana is an exquisite part of the fabric and legacy of Hawaii. It is an exciting gateway into a heritage that has been around for many years and will be around long after I’m gone. I am privileged to have shared in its experience and I hope you’ll take the opportunity to see this film. 

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-Ben Cahlamer