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August 17, 2016

Movie Review: The Hawaiians (1970)

Movie Review by Greg Goodsell

Directed by Tom Gries

The first film adaptation of the sprawling James Michener novel, Hawaii was the epic of the same name in 1966 (see my previous review here). That entry concentrated on the influence of American Christian missionaries on native islanders in the early 19th Century. The Hawaiians, which followed in 1970, would concentrate on the impact of Chinese and Japanese migrants arriving in the tropical paradise at the turn of the century. Presenting a wide diorama of various cultures struggling for dominance in an enchanting land, The Hawaiians maintains an intimate narrative while thoroughly entertaining its audience.

Preeminent American screen star Charlton Heston stars as Whip Hoxworth, an irascible seaman eager to leave his business of transporting Chinese immigrants – who are essentially “indentured servants,” or “slaves” to keep the bustling island's capital of Honolulu running. Among whip's latest batch is the shrewd Mun Ki (Mako) who plans to make the at-first slovenly and unappealing “mountain girl” Nyuk Tsin (Tina Chen, the film's true star) into a first-class prostitute. But as history proves, there are lots of variables, and in short order Nyuk Tsin becomes Mun Ki's “wife.” The Hawaiians then focuses on Nyuk's journey from a hapless victim to a strong-willed, industrious woman who galvanizes the large family she starts with Mun Ki into prosperity – in spite, or perhaps because of the limitations placed upon her as a low-caste Chinese woman.

While Hoxoworth maintains a marriage with his wife Purity (Geraldine Chaplin), he in time develops a strong bond with Nyuk Tsin. Called “Wu Chow's Auntie,” as the money her family makes is shipped back to China to Mun Ki's “real” wife, Nyuk Tsin begins to plow her efforts into a backyard, humble garden, which she turns around to sell her harvest. The out-and-out racist Hoxworth eventually begins to soften his position by the example given by this proud, independent woman. Even more impressively, while there is plenty to dislike about Mun Ki's abominable treatment of her, Nyuk Tsin shows the trans-formative power of love – accompanying him to a fulsome leper colony where he dies years later.

One could find fault with The Hawaiians' Hollywood approach to history – but what depiction of historical events, truly, can ever be objective – but the viewer is genuinely touched and moved over the film's central story. Plucky Nyuk Tsin refuses to compromises her ideals to do what she feels is right for her, her husband and her six sons and one daughter – we learn that one opened a restaurant and another has become a lawyer, so we must assume that she did something right! The film has a hopeful message that clearly says that attitude and determination trumps circumstance, and this message has special relevance in ongoing, contemporary society. To this date, the argument of “heredity” and “environment” continues to play out in American society in explaining away the ills of life.

We learn from Julie Kirgo's liner notes for this Twilight Time limited edition Btu-Ray release – 3,000 copies, that Chen would leave a similar strong impression in Three Days of the Condor (1975), While she occasionally takes roles, she remains primarily a director of stage plays today.

The Hawaiians' only glaring fault is the performance of cult film favorite John Phillip Law, who turns in a lousy, wooden performance. Since he shares the screen with perennial ham-bone Heston, his stilted line delivery is ever more apparent than ever. This one flaw aside, no one should pass up the opportunity to see The Hawaiians for some grand, old-style movie entertainment. As is the case with most Twilight Time releases, there are English subtitles for the hard-of-hearing and the film's theatrical trailer, which is of especially dodgy quality.

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