I think it's a safe bet that Lee Sang-il's Hula Girls will have easily been one of the most commercial, mainstream, audience-friendly films to have played this year's TIFF. And that's not at all a bad thing. Hula Girls follows the basic "small band of underdogs unite to overcome all odds, while learning valuable life lessons" plot arc to a "T", and yet it's done with such verve, flair, and warmth that it's simply a joy to watch.
It's 1965, and the town of Joban has fallen on hard times. The coal that has been the town's lifeblood is no longer in high demand, and many of the town's workers know that their jobs are in danger. However, even as the factory owners begin announcing lay-offs, they also announce a new plan to bring some money and jobs into town; they plan to open a Hawaiian center as a tourist attraction. Obviously, the townspeople are resentful, not to mention highly skeptical -- only and idiot would think that palm trees and tropical paradises can exist in Joban, located so far north as it is.
But the Hawaiian center is coming, like it or not, and the key to the center's success is, of course, the hula dance. However, the women of Joban are rather reluctant to get up on stage, half-naked, and shake their hips in front of total strangers. A woman's dignified place is at home, raising children and supporting their coal-working husbands, fathers, and brothers. But a few of the town's girls are intrigued by the idea. Led by Sanae, who sees dancing as her only ticket out of the oppressive town, a small group of motley individuals decide to stick it out. Needless to say, many challenges await them, and the first is their teacher Madoka Hirayama, who arrives on the first day with nothing but a hangover and a healthy disdain for the country bumpkins surrounding her.
Of course, the outcome of the film is never really in question. However, the joy is in the way that film arrives there. Lee Sang-il populates his film with an array of colorful characters. There's bright-eyed Sanae and her dubious best friend Kimiko, who both see dancing as a possible escape. There's Sayuri, whose rather large frame casts her dancing skills in doubt, and her father, one of the only men in the village who don't see the dancing as an affront on traditional values. And the classy, fiercely independent Hirayama provides plenty of contrast with the more traditionally-minded men of the village, holding her own against such boorish folks as Kimiko's older brother Yojiro.
While there's plenty of tension concerning the hula dance -- the older villagers see it as an affront, the kids see it as something fun and exciting (cue the Footloose theme!) -- Lee Sang-il is too smart to simply cast everything in black and white. The traditionally-minded villagers have a point with their protests against the hula dance; after all, in rapidly changing times, traditions may be all that they have left. And besides, modern fashions and ideas seem very much out-of-place in the rough, barren country in which they live.
However, there's no denying that the younger women of the village face a dead end if they're hoping for something more, and hula dancing might just be the thing the turns the town's fortunes around. And while the old folks just think the girls are goofing off as they tour the country to drum up interest in the Hawaiian center and forgetting their traditional duties, the girls are actually working their tails off in some pretty unforgiving situations.
Regardless of which side of the debate they fall on, however, all of the characters are invested with so much life and color that when the eventual tragedies do strike and obstacles pop up, they seem less like cliched plot devices and more like actual threats to the success of our heroines. There were several points in the film where I found myself blinking away a tear or two, and by all of the sniffles I heard around me, I know I wasn't the only one.
Hula Girls certainly delves into melodrama from time to time, such as when the girls do their best to convince Hirayama from leaving or have to bid a tearful goodbye to one of their members, but the film earns every sappy, sentimental moment that comes along. And it also earns the climax, which any observant viewer should see coming from a mile away, but which explodes off the screen with such joy and satisfaction that only the most cynical of folks will be able to resist an urge to cheer.