Probably the biggest surprise of "Hula Girls", and what gives it such impact, is how it comes out of left field with its depth and emotion. What appears to be a by-the-numbers feel good movie, about a bunch of fish-out-of-water types who aspire to something more, to the tune of "Shall We Dance?" or "The Full Monty", ends up being a brutal and violent tale, filled with prejudice and entrenched small town thinking. This is "Billy Elliot". This is "Coal Miner's Daughter".
Life is hard for coal miners, and during the mid-60s when demand for coal dropped off and the mines started closing, it became harsher still. One of the lofty dreams of Japan at the time was the concept of life-time employment, where a company was your family and they looked after their employees faithfully. Many such projects as the Joban Hawaiian Center were started at that time, attempting to replace vanishing industries with tourism and supplying new employment for company workers. It was an admirable goal, rather than just discarding unneeded laborers to fend for themselves. Most of the time it ended in failure, and the various "Canada Lands" and "Holland Centers" that populated the Japanese countryside are now all barren ruins. The Hawaiian resorts still stands though, and the Hula Girls are still dancing.
Very loosely based on this true story, director Sang-il Lee artfully mixed the dull colors of the mining world with the bright promise of a better future in the flashing colors of Hawaii. Korean-Japanese, Lee knows something about the harshness of attempting to bring new thoughts to a closed community, as he has shown in his first film "Chong". He also understands the freedom and resilience of youth, having adapted Ryu Murakami's youth-rebellion novel "69". All of the actors shine as well, especially Yu Aoi as the lead dancer Kumiko.
Some of the appeal of "Hula Girls" will probably be lost on Western audiences, especially the performance of Shizuyo Yamazaki as the giant girl Sayuri. Yamazaki is a famous comedian in Japan, known for her gruff manner and wearing guy's clothes, so seeing her dance around in a hula skirt is especially charming. She also puts enormous depth into her character, something I didn't think she was capable of as an actress, and was quite moved by.