Steadfast tradition and encroaching progress lock horns in the surprisingly cheerful Hula Girls, a film that—amid its central coming-of-age tale—deftly evokes the widespread social pangs brought about by the passage of time and the changes that tend to accompany it. In the rural mountain town of Joban, Japan, over 2,000 workers of the local coal mine face unemployment when the company unveils its plans to close the mining facilities in the face of diminishing profits, instead putting their resources into a proposed Hawaiian-themed tourist center. Such a radical change is both ambitious—given the region’s wintry climate—and understandably upsetting to the townsfolk who have known nothing other than their town’s fossil fuel industry, despite the growing realization that continued reliance on their long-standing but finite natural resources is not unlike clinging for life onboard the R.M.S. Titanic. Immediately, Hawaii becomes the scapegoat for the town’s problems, drawing implicit parallels to American racism in the face of outsourced labor and escalating gas prices; a drunk, recently laid off father comes home to find his daughter decked out in traditional Hawaiian décor, and proceeds to release his economic frustrations on the innocent girl’s face.
An end-credits caption indicates that the film is based on real events, an unsurprising fact given the rough-hewn realism of the film’s economic crisis. At center stage, however, is the story of the young girls who were drafted as entertainers for the town’s newfound tourist attraction, a motley crew given to innocent archetypes and traditional character slapstick. Forced to overcome many a gender barrier in their preparation for the grand opening of the new Hawaiian center, the film is keenly attuned to the effects patriarchal standards have on the ins and outs of everyday life, another area of lived-in expertise that makes it even more aggravating when the film reverts to cheap narrative tactics to thrust the plot forward.
A former professional dancer from Tokyo is brought into the village to teach the young girls their required dance skills, the unfolding conflict between urban and rural lifestyles being no small source for melodramatic milking. Damaging though they are, such storytelling lapses are fortunately in limited supply, leaving the majority of Hula Girls to bask in the warmth of finely executed genre standards; the dance sequences are hot, utilizing breathless slow motion and razor-sharp editing to accentuate the beauty of the performances, while the inevitable conclusion in which everyone has learned something about themselves actually demands credence. One could certainly do worse at the multiplex any given day of the year.