‘Waikiki’ shines at Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival

… center of Hawaii’s tourism was turned into a high-rise hell squeezing dollars … Despite the fact that Kea has two other part-time jobs—as a Hawaiian …
‘Waikiki’ shines at Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival

Promotional image for Waikiki

America is currently experiencing a historic surge of protests igniting a cultural awakening and racial reckoning. October 12, which has been called “Columbus Day” and is now referred to as Indigenous Peoples Day has come and gone. But in this month, shorts, documentaries, and features by and about the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Islands are being given their day in the sun as part of the 36th annual Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. Since 1983 Visual Communications, a nonprofit organization, has presented LAAPFF, whose mission is “to develop and support the voices of Asian American and Pacific Islander filmmakers and media artists who empower communities and challenge perspectives.” This year. due to the pandemic. the Festival is online.

To be sure, the plethora of pictures presented at LAAPFF are by Asian and Asian-American filmmakers with roots in countries such as the People’s Republic of China, India, etc., with populations that vastly outnumber the peoples of Polynesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia. Nevertheless, LAAPFF provides a perch for works by and about Oceanic talents and topics in Los Angeles, a global capital of cinema. This is the first in a series of reviews of selections from Hawaii, the Marquesas, Samoa, Aotearoa/New Zealand, etc., at LAAPFF, which reels through October 31.

Waikiki, mon amour

Writer/director Christopher Kahunanana’s feature film debut Waikiki is a sensitively nuanced peek behind the paradise façade paraded before tourists to lure them to come visit Hawaii. It goes far beyond old South Seas cinema’s celluloid stereotypes. Danielle Zalopany depicts Kea, a “local girl” on the skids at Oahu. When the feature opens, Kea is performing with a troupe of hula dancers at a nightclub for tourists with a backdrop of world-famous Diamond Head. The beautiful young Polynesian is alluringly clad in a halter top, sarong, and what are probably plastic leis and flowery crown. They dance to the lovely sonorous song (probably recorded) “Waikiki” by Andy Cummings that extolls the idyllic vision of a bygone era before the center of Hawaii’s tourism was turned into a high-rise hell squeezing dollars out of visitors drawn to Oahu by a heavenly vision:

Waikīkī

My whole life is empty without you

I miss that magic about you

Magic beside the sea

Magic of Waikīkī.

Despite the fact that Kea has two other part-time jobs—as a Hawaiian language teacher for children (probably as part of the Aloha State’s laudatory program to teach the Indigenous mother tongue, which has largely vanished from daily discourse due to colonial subjugation) and as a bar girl in a downtown Honolulu (perhaps in Chinatown?) gritty bar—she is homeless, like so many other landless Hawaiians dispossessed in their ancestral homeland.

Despite her beauty, Kea is anything but the carefree, sensuous sarong girl stereotypically depicted by countless Dorothy Lamour types in South Seas Cinema productions shot by “Haole-wood” filmmakers. Kea is a real, three-dimensional human being suffering as one of the wretched of the Earth in an Island stolen from her ancestors who must cope with the vicious vicissitudes of a callous capitalist society.

Apparently mistreated by her partner, brawny Branden (Jason Quinn), Kea seems to have fled her abusive household, where she may have also lived with their child—although like other facets of Waikiki this is unclear, as is the exact nature of her relationship with Branden. Kea is living out of her van, and her efforts to find a new place to live are thwarted by bureaucratic stipulations and paperwork, despite the fact that she actually has the cash on hand for the first month and a deposit required to rent an apartment in incredibly overpriced, hyperinflated Hawaii.

While living on the streets and out of her van, Kea falls in with the woeful Wo (Peter Shinkoda, whose lengthy credits include Daredevil), a homeless man whom, shall we say, she meets by accident. Kea’s misadventures in the harsh high-rise habitat that is much of contemporary Honolulu include having her van towed and her inability to retrieve it, again, due to red tape, thus depriving her of what little shelter she had.

Homelessness is a major problem in Hawaii, where thousands of disenfranchised Hawaiians and locals literally live on the beaches in tents and other makeshift shelters. In scenes that akamai (in-the-know) viewers will find poignant, a traumatized Kea wanders past the statue of a woman and a stately 19th-century building in the American Florentine architectural style. If the viewer is familiar with them, this can evoke a sense of estrangement, of becoming a stranger in one’s own land.

However, ordinary moviegoers outside of Hawaii are unlikely to recognize that the bronze figure on the pedestal is Queen Liliuokalani, Hawaii’s last monarch who was overthrown in a coup d’état executed by descendants of American missionaries and merchants, backed by the U.S. military in 1893. The statue is near Iolani Palace, where Liliuokalani had reigned over an independent kingdom before she was toppled in the planters’ putsch depriving Polynesians of their sovereignty and then placed under house arrest in America’s only royal palace by the Washington-backed traitors. Kea also traipses past the 50th State’s volcano-shaped State Capitol building.

These are all poignant symbols for residents and those familiar with Hawaii and its history, but as they are never specifically identified onscreen may go over the heads of many off-island viewers. Thus Waikiki will probably lose much of its intended impact because film fans aren’t mind readers. Movies are often criticized for being too long (are you listening, Marty Scorsese?), but the 82-minute Waikiki is one of those rare productions where a skillfully added 10 minutes or so with the exposition necessary to explain the historical background and context for the general viewer would probably enhance the work. (Of course, that’s easy for a critic to write as he’s not paying any of the costs.) But malihinis (Island neophytes) can pick up some of the nationalist vibe by listening closely to the angry lyrics of the bitter song that plays over the end credits, Brother Noland’s “Look What They’ve Done,” which contrasts sharply with the trope-filled “Waikiki.”

Nevertheless, Kahunanana is clearly an Oceanic auteur brimming with promise. Waikiki plays with time like the French director Alain Resnais, who helmed New Wave classics such as 1959’s experimental Hiroshima Mon Amour. A series of shots flashback to Kea as a child, learning aspects of her Hawaiian heritage from her tutu (grandmother, played by Hawaiian actress Claire Parker Johnson), which serve to show grownup Kea’s alienation from her culture. Interestingly, these scenes are lensed in water, either a stream or the ocean. Kahunanana has a keen eye as there are some exquisite shots of Oahu which, beyond Waikiki, the most overcrowded, crime-ridden, traffic-choked, polluted part of Hawaii, still boasts plenty of splendid scenery. Cinematographer Ryan Myamoto’s camera colorfully captures it all.

Ms. Zalopany is likewise an Islander filled with talent, who bestows dignity and poignancy on her down-on-her-luck character, grappling with the oppression of struggling to survive in a homeland torn from the rightful owners, her ancestors. Ms. Zalopany’s TV and movie credits include Hawaii Five-O and 2016’s Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, and she appears in the shorts Kālewa and Moloka’i Bound, which are also being screened at this year’s LAAPFF.

Just as I greatly look forward to future films by/with Kahunanana and Ms. Zalopany, it was a delight to see an old friend, the Hawaiian radio/stage/screen stalwart, beloved Kimo Kahoana in a cameo as Uncle Bully (who appears to abandon little Kea in flashbacks). Waikiki credits the Will & Jada Smith Family Foundation, Hawaiian language expert Maile Meyer, the Sundance Institute, Native Lab Fellows, and Maori Oscar winner, actor/director/screenwriter Taika Waititi (Jojo Rabbit).

The Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival does viewers a great cinematic service by providing a platform to film buffs of the off-the-beaten-path pictures by presenting worthy works like Waikiki. In showing the other side of the South Seas on film, with its Indigenous POV, Waikiki is a step forward in the film genre that began in Honolulu in 1898, when a Thomas Edison camera crew shot scenes of Waikiki and Oahu. Interested viewers can watch Waikikihere. For more information about the film, see here.

LAAPFF’s other Pacific Islander films this year include:

Patutiki: The Guardians of the Marquesan Tattoo; Hinekura; Faces of Oceania; Kama’āina (Child of the Land); Kālewa; Kapaemahu; Liliu; Mo’o!; Moloka’i Bound; Tā Moko—Behind the Tattooed Face; The Moon and the Night; and Toa’ipuapuagā Strength in Suffering.


CONTRIBUTOR

Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

    Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian/critic and co-organizer of the 70th Anniversary Commemoration of the Hollywood Blacklist.

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    Women’s Soccer League to Launch LA Franchise

    Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, the husband of Serena Williams, is the lead founding investor of the group through his firm Initialized Capital.

    Spearheaded by an ownership group featuring prominent local businesswomen, female Hollywood stars and former women’s World Cup players, a Los Angeles franchise in the National Women’s Soccer League will begin play in 2022.

    NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird announced the team, Angel City, on July 21, just days before the league stages its Challenge Cup championship game. The NWSL was the first pro sports league to resume play under the Covid-19 pandemic safety restrictions.

    Angel City’s ownership group includes Oscar-winning actress Natalie Portman, Upfront Ventures executive Kara Nortman and team president Julie Uhrman, a former exec at Lions Gate and video game console company OUYA.

    Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, the husband of Serena Williams, is the lead founding investor of the group through his firm Initialized Capital.

    “We’ve long sought the right partner in L.A. considering the NWSL fanbase that already exists in the region and the massive interest in women’s soccer in general,” Baird said in a statement. “Those factors, along with an incredible ownership group, make this an ideal situation, and we couldn’t be more thrilled to move forward.”

    Angel City will be the first pro women’s soccer team in the region in more than a decade. Women’s Professional Soccer had the L.A. Sol for one season in 2010, before it folded, and the league disbanded the next year. The NWSL launched in 2013 with eight teams.

    Among the former U.S. National Team players who have signed on as investors is Mia Hamm, who with husband Nomar Garciaparra is also an investor in Major League Soccer’s Los Angeles Football Club. Hamm also played for the Women’s United Soccer Association, the first women’s pro soccer league launched in 2001.

    Other Angel City investors include Netflix Vice President Cindy Holland, actresses Jennifer Garner, Eva Longoria, Uzo Aduba and America Ferrera, as well as talk-show host and comedian Lilly Singh.

    Financial terms of the deal for the franchise rights were not disclosed.

    The team’s launch in L.A. will come a year after the delayed Summer Olympics take place in Tokyo and the year before the 2023 Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.

    For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.

    LA suspends Uber for refusing to provide real-time data on its scooters and bikes

    Following months of conflict over a controversial data-sharing policy, Los Angeles has temporarily suspended Uber’s permit to rent electric scooters …

    Following months of conflict over a controversial data-sharing policy, Los Angeles has temporarily suspended Uber’s permit to rent electric scooters and bicycles on city streets and sidewalks.

    The company’s subsidiary, Jump, must appeal the decision by Friday or leave the city, the Transportation Department told the company in a letter last week. For now, customers can still rent the vivid red scooters and electric bikes through the Jump app.

    In response, Uber threatened in a letter to sue the city over the “patently unfair and improper” suspension. The letter also questioned the validity of the “eleventh-hour administrative review process” that the city created last month.

    “Every other company that is permitted in Los Angeles is following the rules,” said Transportation Department spokeswoman Connie Llanos. “We look forward to being able to work with Uber on getting them into compliance.”

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    The suspension follows months of tension and failed attempts at compromise between Uber and the city over a data-sharing rule in L.A.’s one-year pilot permit program. Companies are required to transmit real-time data on all trips made within the city, including the start point, end point and travel time.

    Uber has resisted the rule for months, arguing, with the backing of several data privacy organizations, that the city’s policy constitutes government surveillance. With minimal analysis, they say, the information could easily reveal where people live, work, socialize or worship.

    Los Angeles officials have said the data are necessary to figure out which companies are flouting the permit program’s rules, including caps on the number of vehicles and bans on riding in certain areas.They have also argued that the companies cannot be trusted to regulate themselves.

    The eight companies with permits to operate in L.A. — including Uber, Bird, Lime and Lyft — manage a fleet of about 32,000 scooters and bikes that see about 1 million trips per month.

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    The dispute highlights the lack of trust between cities and transportation companies that have typically moved into new markets without asking permission, working with local officials or sharing details on their operations.

    Companies such as Uber “generate and collect massive amounts of personal and financial data,” while the city “does not collect information specific to individual riders beyond trip information,” said Marcel Porras, the Transportation Department’s chief sustainability officer, in a letter to Uber last week.

    The data-sharing policies crafted in Los Angeles are now being overseen by a nonprofit organization, the Open Mobility Foundation. Its advocates hope the rules will serve as a framework to standardize data-sharing between governments and transportation companies.

    The Transportation Department has urged California regulators to adopt a similar framework for trips made in Uber and Lyft cars, which would reveal vast amounts of information on their operations statewide — data cities badly want to review, but that the companies have jealously guarded.

    Should Uber and Lyft drivers earn $30 per hour? Los Angeles will study a minimum wage

    Los Angeles lawmakers on Tuesday took the first step toward a minimum wage for tens of thousands of Uber and Lyft drivers, approving a study of …

    Los Angeles lawmakers on Tuesday took the first step toward a minimum wage for tens of thousands of Uber and Lyft drivers, approving a study of how the law would work and how it would be enforced.

    The City Council also requested an independent study of how much Uber and Lyft drivers earn in L.A., and how much they spend on gas, insurance and other operating costs.

    The vote comes less than a week after City Council President Herb Wesson, who is running for a seat on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, introduced a motion asking for a draft law to mandate a $15 hourly wage for drivers and $15 per hour to cover their expenses.

    Lawmakers approved a softer version Tuesday, asking city analysts to study an hourly minimum wage, “with the goal of a $30 minimum.”

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    The vote comes a month after California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 5, an ambitious law aimed at curbing the use of independent contractors. Uber, Lyft and DoorDash are preparing a ballot initiative exempting themselves from the law.

    More than a hundred Los Angeles drivers for Uber and Lyft, some in neon green and bright blue shirts, crowded into City Hall on Tuesday morning. A few held signs that read, “Regulate rideshare!” and “LA for $30,” with the zero replaced by a hot pink steering wheel.

    Uber and Lyft are “never going to do right by drivers” if governments don’t force them to, said Eduardo Belalcazar, a driver and member of the Mobile Workers Alliance, organized by the Service Employees International Union Local 721. “We’re not asking for the moon. Just $15 to cover expenses, and $15 to take home.”

    A 2018 study by a Washington think tank found that Uber drivers across the U.S. earned $11.77 per hour after vehicle expenses and the company’s cut from each ride. That wage dropped to $9.21 after the cost of Social Security, Medicare and “voluntary benefits,” such as healthcare and a retirement plan.

    A letter from Uber and Lyft to Los Angeles lawmakers on a proposed $30 hourly minimum wage for drivers working in the city.

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    Both companies have disputed those findings.

    Research from the Stanford Graduate School of Business this year found that drivers earned an average of $21.07 per hour between 2015 and 2017, before expenses and Uber’s commission fee. Three of the study’s five authors had been employed by Uber, and one left Uber to work at Lyft, according to the paper’s footnotes.

    In a joint letter Tuesday, Uber and Lyft told Los Angeles lawmakers that they supported a “fair and impartial independent earnings study.”

    But the letter, signed by policy managers from both companies, said it was “concerning” that the minimum wage motion was discussed and approved by the City Council on the same day, four working days after it was introduced.

    Lyft supports a “guaranteed wage floor” and supports a statewide wage policy, spokeswoman Lauren Alexander said. Uber spokesman Davis White said the company supports “commitments on driver earnings” but is concerned that the study is “based on potentially false assumptions that will fundamentally bias its conclusions.”

    Drivers on Tuesday said they are growing increasingly concerned that they cannot make ends meet, an anxiety driven by cuts to the per-mile rates that the companies pay the drivers. They cited Lyft’s new pricing structure in Arizona, which reduced some per-mile rates by nearly half.

    “There’s a lot of fear that could happen here too,” said Jon Davidson, 57 of Alhambra, who drives for Lyft part time. “You’re basically just driving to pay for gas and taxes.”

    Davidson began driving for Lyft two years ago, after he retrained as a paralegal and could not find full-time work. He works part time as a clerk at a law firm, where he earns minimum wage, and drives part time. He has a bad back, and hates driving in Los Angeles traffic, he said, but it’s the only way he can make ends meet.

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    He added: “Like so many people, I never thought I’d be in this situation.”

    Postmates Charmed Hollywood. Now The $1.85 Billion Delivery Startup Needs To Win Over …

    Investors including Founders Fund, Spark Capital and Tiger Global sank nearly $700 million into the San Francisco startup, now valued at $1.85 …

    The trunk of the silver Volkswagen Jetta opens to reveal its bounty: white and orange boxes, stacked five high, an $8,000 delivery of 10,000 biscuits that the owner is eager to share with his millions of followers. “What’s going on y’all? It’s Postmate Malone and these are my Popeyes biscuits,” the singer (stage name, Post Malone) says into the camera from the music festival Coachella in 2017, a clip that made his taste for carbs—and the name of the delivery service—go viral.

    The celebrity megaphone helped Postmates survive the early shakeout among food delivery startups by broadcasting an image of hip affluence to Millennials in cities like L.A. and Miami. Unpaid shout-outs from model Chrissy Teigen, who tweeted about ordering five limes on the service, and actress Sophia Bush, who loves to buy Shake Shack through Postmates, helped the app gain a 40% market share in Los Angeles. Investors including Founders Fund, Spark Capital and Tiger Global sank nearly $700 million into the San Francisco startup, now valued at $1.85 billion. It booked a reported $400 million in revenue last year. (The company declined to comment on its financials.) “The only thing that we did is we tried to make something that’s cool. We always wanted to be cool at Postmates,” says Bastian Lehmann, the company’s cofounder and CEO.

    As Postmates prepares to go public, Lehmann, 42, will need this early traction to override two daunting forces. In the months since February, when it filed confidential paper work for an initial public offering, investors have savaged consumer tech IPOs, taking tens of billions in market value off Uber and Lyft offerings. And its three larger competitors—$12.6 billion valuation DoorDash; Uber Eats, part of Uber, which is worth $55 billion; and $5 billion market cap Grubhub, which dominates New York—can easily outspend it. Postmates increased its national market share to 11.5% in the last year, according to credit-card-receipt analyzer Second Measure, but at a cost: It ramped up on discounts and TV ads to grow nationally and hang on to key markets like the Southwest.

    “When you look at scale and ambition of Uber Eats, DoorDash and even Grubhub, I think holding on to regional dominance is going to be difficult over time,” says Andy Hargreaves, an analyst at KeyBanc, of Postmates. “Those guys, all three of them, are going to want the whole country, and they have a lot of capital.”

    Lehmann always had a taste for Hollywood, but he chased another California dream when he left his native Germany: startups. Raised in Munich, he dropped out of college and toyed with becoming a filmmaker before launching a flash deals website in 1999 amid the dot-com boom. In 2010, he made it to the U.S., joining a San Francisco startup incubator to build Curated.by, which organized tweets and social media around specific topics.

    postmate-tweets-wide

    Unpaid celebrity tweets gave Postmates a brand boost and an advantage in Los Angeles.

    Potential investors hated the idea, so Lehmann and cofounder Sam Street switched gears, teaming up with a third cofounder, Sean Plaice, to start Postmates. Lehmann originally envisioned a local courier service that would pay people with extra space in their car to make deliveries, like ride-sharing for items.

    “We couldn’t wrap our head around the fact that it was easier to look up something on Amazon, click a button and have it delivered two to three days later—keep in mind this is 2009-2010 that I’m talking about—versus finding that same product in a store in your city,” Lehmann says.

    The company started delivering furniture for stores in San Francisco, then expanded to restaurants, manually uploading hundreds of menus while allowing people to order anything else they could imagine. They did. In New York, a customer ordered a designer fanny pack from Alexander Wang. In Los Angeles, someone spent $4,000 on alcohol, chasers, ice and Solo cups from convenience store Pink Dot.

    When Postmates launched in L.A. in 2014, its sixth market, it went after both creative and affluent users, mimicking Tesla’s strategy of starting upmarket. Also, wealthy clients were less likely to balk at a $10 service charge (it’s now as low as 99 cents.) “It was really a product targeted by design right from the start to an affluent customer base, in the hope that if they find and adapt the product, it helps us bring down the price over time,” Lehmann says.

    The other part was guerilla marketing. Because it wanted to attract artists and writers, Postmates started making its way into the pop culture lexicon. Avid users like Pitch Perfect singer Anna Kendrick, Blink 182’s Travis Barker and Selma director Ava DuVernay began to share orders, from vegan fine dining to junk food indulgences, with their millions of followers on Instagram and Twitter. Singer Malone dropped it into his hit “Spoil My Night.” In Postmates’ early days, none were paid to do this—it just happened because A-listers liked the service.

    In the last two years, Postmates began to double down on that early celebrity buzz, starting to pay influencers like makeup mogul Kylie Jenner to share what she’s ordered publicly.

    “You don’t want to have Kylie Jenner amplify your messaging when you have 4% market share in L.A.,” he says. “It’s a lot cooler if you have 45%. Everybody sees it and is like ‘I get it.’”

    There’s a tongue-in-cheek YouTube series with Martha Stewart, who tells people to give up on her cooking instructions and “Postmate it.” The Chainsmokers cut a quid pro quo deal where fans could get free delivery if they entered the title of the duo’s new song “Takeaway” in the app. It compensates others like actress Cara Delevingne to participate in The Receipt, a corporate blog that reveals how much celebrities have spent on the service. Lehmann maintains the endorsements don’t cost that much because its famous customers already know the product. “It’s peanuts. Maybe it’s a percent from everything that we’re investing goes to influencers,” he says.

    Bastian Lehmann Founder CEO of Postmates.com

    Bastian Lehmann, shown here in 2017, has changed his look as Los Angeles has grown in importance. He now sports white T-shirts and a Dodgers baseball cap.

    Christian Peacock for Forbes

    Any extra savings helps as the company starts spending more on national advertising, its main weapon to gain a bigger slice of a growing market. Online food delivery in the United States will be a $28 billion market by 2023, estimates Statista, and online platforms are the fastest growing revenue segment (more than 21% in 2019, according to Statista). As food delivery grows, the companies have been partnering with retailers for other deliveries, like convenience chain 7-Eleven’s deal with DoorDash and Postmates.

    “Postmates and DoorDash have longer shelf life than I would have originally expected because investors understand that the online restaurant delivery market is big and growing fast, and companies like Walmart are leveraging these delivery startups to offer faster delivery,” says Tom Forte, an analyst at D.A. Davidson.

    Yet like stardom, it’s easy to have 15 minutes of fame and harder to maintain a career. Despite being a growth story for Uber, Uber Eats remains unprofitable and is dragging margins on Uber’s deliveries and trips down to 8%. Grubhub, while profitable, has lost 40% of its stock market value in the past year as the company spends more to fend off competition. DoorDash, which raised over $1 billion in capital in 2019 alone, has opened the marketing gushers to beat Grubhub in national share.

    If all else fails, Postmates’ presence in L.A. has helped position it as an acquisition target. In July, Recode reported that companies from Uber to DoorDash had looked at buying Postmates. In response to the acquisition rumors, Lehmann paraphrases a Kanye West lyric, dismissing it all as idle gossip: “People talk so much shit about us at the barber shop, they forget to get a haircut,” he says.

    Los Angeles has been good for Postmates, but now the company has to convince investors it’s a good bet for them, too. Even Lehmann isn’t sure how it will go.

    “It is not necessarily 100% clear to me if national market share is really the number one metric that is important to drive forward,” he says. “The metropolitan areas could actually be the bigger prize.”

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    Top image by Jonpaul Douglass for Postmates