One year ago, I and a band of merry film pranksters boarded an interisland flight from O‘ahu to the Big Island of Hawai‘i. We would spend over a month in the jungles of eastern Hawai‘i Island, cut off from the world around us, living and breathing all shades of green. The goal was to return with a feature film, but little did I know that I would have one of the most transformative creative experiences of my life -- one that not only made me fall in love with filmmaking again, but would open my heart and my mind, and glimpse a new creative path forward.
Wailea Village, Nīnole, and Hāmākua -- when my producer Sarah and I visited these old plantation towns a year earlier on a location scout trip for another film in development I Was a Simple Man, something stirred deep within me; the feelings of déjà vu were overwhelming. Akiko, our host at Akiko's Buddhist BnB, where we were staying, told me that people often felt this when they arrived at this area of Hawai‘i Island. There is mana in these parts, she said.
Months later, back in Honolulu, I was doing some ancestral research on my family and I discovered that my great-great-grandfather on my mother's side landed in Nīnole when he immigrated from Japan at the turn of the 20th century. My great-grandmother, who I only remember as a smiling, wheelchair-bound old lady with swollen feet, was born in Hāmākua. This floored me: this area that had shook my insides was where my family first planted their roots when immigrating from Japan. I had no idea. Years later, the story goes, they would abruptly flee the island in the middle of the night, escaping to O‘ahu for reasons that no one knows. My great-grandmother would talk of being a little girl woken in the middle of the night then absconding without her belongings -- the image of her doll's clothing still hanging on the laundry lines seared into her adult mind.
A month or so later, I then discovered that my grandmother on my father's side was also from Nīnole. A fierce woman, valedictorian of her high school, tennis champ, my grandmother loomed large in my youth and I loved her dearly. For whatever reason, she too spoke very little of her time on Hawai‘i Island, of her childhood in Nīnole. Her life story started after she left Hawai‘i Island for Maui.
Upon discovering that both sides of my family had unspoken histories on this island, I knew that I needed to return to this place that was so shrouded in familial mystery.
When I first asked Alex Zhang Hungtai if he'd like to return home to collaborate with me on a project on Hawai‘i Island, he talked to me about his experiences in Beirut. He said that he could feel the historical trauma in the ground, that it was there beneath his feet, and even though everyone around him went about their lives as if it wasn't there, he could feel it was there, always.
I knew then that this was what I wanted our film to explore: the ways in which historical trauma, colonial trauma, remains in the land. Nature as a concept not detached from history and family but instead interconnected, enmeshed with everything. More than this, I had a feeling that the film wasn't only going to be about pain and trauma, but also about the ways in which this historical pain can ultimately become the wellspring of creativity and ecstatic joy.
On a personal level, ancestral trauma is a strange thing. Born in Honolulu, the city, I am often haunted by previous generations, the ones who immigrated and toiled on the plantations. I have reaped the benefits of their labor, while never fully confronting their forgotten histories. I’ve heard the familial whispers: multiple suicides, mental institutionalization, severe addiction, and violent abuse. But as is the case in Asian culture these things were not things spoken of or shared. I sometimes dream of these faceless ancestors, watching me, and I’m unsure of whether they are protecting me or judging me for my ignorance.
There were five of us living in a small plantation home at Akiko's BnB. I was furiously rereading Bresson's Notes on a Cinematograph and Junichiro Tanizaki's In Praise of Shadows. Alex introduced me to Alejandro Jodorowsky's Psychomagic and we discussed using theater and poetry to reveal hidden identities. These three books would form the philosophical base of our work. I wanted the film to be bold, but with a sense of childlike play and wonder. I wanted us to embrace chance, embrace surreality, and embrace the imperfect. Punk, zen, and mother nature, as one.
Together we lived as a family, taking turns cooking meals, meditating at the crack of dawn, then spending our days exploring, listening to the people, the forests, the wind. Ideas came fast and furious from Akiko, from Alex, from our DPs Eunsoo and José, from Sarah our producer, from Easten our sound man -- we explored them all in a deeply collaborative process.
I began to see the film as a river and we were riding it. Wherever it took us is where we would go. Months later I would come across an old zen saying that trying to find nirvana is like "looking for the ox while riding the ox". This is how I now feel about filmmaking.
Randy Takaki is an artist whose art I have deep respect for. He had died a year earlier but we had been in contact with his family and they graciously said that we could come and shoot his studio, untouched since his death. We weren't sure what we were going to get, but I loved his work so I wanted to see it. The shoot didn't go well, we didn't get much of anything -- but I know that Randy was there. And I don't think he was happy that we were in his studio. Easten later said that he had heard disembodied voices in his headphones. Doors slammed on us, unprovoked. Before we left, Mrs. Takaki, Randy's mother, grabbed me by my face and looked deep into my eyes "looking for ghosts", then started weeping. This was about halfway through our shoot and I spent the rest of the time questioning if I was alive, or not.
Mr. Howard Pe‘a and his family hold a monthly meeting called Ho‘oponopono, a traditional practice passed down from indigenous teachers in which Uncle Howard leads his students through personal forgiveness and healing. He began doing this work with incarcerated and institutionalized Hawaiians and now shares the teaching with all who are willing to reflect and learn. Akiko invited Sarah and me to participate in one of these sessions. Sitting under a tent outside of Uncle Howard's home, next to his taro farm, his dogs sleeping next to our feet, we ate potluck food and listened. In his powerful yet jolly way, Uncle Howard spoke to us about the island's history and the blood that flowed through our veins. Sarah and I found the Pe‘a family so generous and moving that we decided that we wanted to film a session with Alex sitting in. The scene didn't make the final cut of the film (a lot of wonderful scenes did not), but Uncle Howard's teachings course through the film. I realized that this film was not just a film, but a form of ho‘oponopono itself and would ultimately become cinematic space for personal reflection. If you as an audience member are willing to come open, slow down, to look inward, then we would provide a space for quiet and healing. A space to think and wait. To find meaning in silence and the mundane. To maybe drift off to sleep. To give you an opportunity to empathize with a tree, a rock, a frog.
There are so many more stories like these. Every morning, I woke up with such overwhelming gratitude that I felt like crying. I was thankful for the process, for my team, for the people we met. Any work of art is an expression of a collective consciousness and the process in which it is made, and because we remained curious, open to our senses, our unknown memories, I could feel then that we had something special. Something different. The film's journey into the world is only just beginning, and I hope it lives a long life, but what I will hold onto are those six weeks, one year ago, where we all abandoned our ritual selves in order to inhabit our magical selves; where we learned to stop, look, and listen; where we asked of the island, and she answered.