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Reels From the Rim

[whitespace] A Single Spark Searching for Justice: The Korean feature 'A Single Spark' tells the story of a journalist's search for the truth about the murder of a labor union activist; it screens April 28 at the Del Mar Theater in Santa Cruz.

Hawaiian documentary 'Luther Kahekili Makekau' and Singapore drama'12 Storeys' highlight Pacific Rim Film Festival

By Richard von Busack

TOO BAD THEY don't award a Nobel Prize for pig rustling. Luther Kahekili Makekau, Eddie and Myrna Kamae's warm-hearted documentary about "a one kine Hawaiian Man," demonstrates on camera a seemingly foolproof method of hog hijacking pioneered by the late, great Makekau: 1) squash a loaf of Wonder Bread in a plastic bag with about a pint of gin; 2) toss the mess down into the pen; 3) wait until the pigs slop it up; and 4) wrap the pig-drunkenest of the pigs in a sheet and haul it away, confident that it's too blitzed to squeal and alert the farmer.

The dramatization of Makekau's method, complete with the benevolent smiles on the faces of the passed-out porkers, is the opening-day feature at this year's Pacific Rim Film Festival, which runs April 26-30 in Santa Cruz and Watsonville.

But Luther Makekau was no mere pig thief. In the voices captured by the Kamaes (and with narration scripted by Santa Cruz author James D. Houston), Makekau emerges as a Hawaiian renaissance man: folklorist, botanist, Robin Hood, Johnny Appleseed and cowboy. Says one interviewee, "He was his own parade, all by himself."

This amazing man packed a lot of living into almost 100 years. He was a UC-Berkeley dropout who returned to the Big Island to spend the rest of his life. His father was a Hawaiian legislator, and Makekau knew a little law himself. Says Kalani Meinecke, "[Luther] was acutely articulate about the law--even though, for most of his life, he was on the other side of the law."

He was thrice married, and no one can give a reliable count of his children, though 59 is one estimate. Makekau cut a devastating figure. They say he was on horseback even when he went to the bars. That he sang as he rode--he liked the song about the Sheik of Araby--and that his horse wore a lei of its own. They say that his horse slept by his side, watching him like a dog, baring its teeth if you approached.

But lest Makekau sound like a mess of sweet anecdotes, like the subject of the kind of movie Hoyt Axton used to narrate, the film shows us a meaner side. We see, for instance, the uneasiness in the eyes of one of his many sons as he talks about his father.

Makekau had cause for wrath, living during the illegalization of the Hawaiian language and deposition of the monarchy. Kamae's documentary has the whole of a nation's history in one life--admittedly a 98-year-long life.

ALSO A STANDOUT at this year's festival is 12 Storeys (1997, shows April 27-28 at the Del Mar), which is all about a very different sort of island society. Singapore seems to have been stuck with the worst residue of British colonization: not just the famous canings, but also the urge for middle-class respectability. Director Eric Khoo records the sometimes funny, sometimes tragic drama of three lives in the government subsidized high-rises ("HDB flats") where some 85 percent of the population of Singapore lives.

It's a tradeoff; the public housing program is among the best in Asia, and yet according to this film, the cramped flats leave a lot to be desired. The residents have trouble telling the difference between elevators and pissoirs, and the apartments have insects and unenthusiastic plumbing.

The film's framing device features the ghost of a young suicide exploring the lives of his former neighbors on the 12th floor. What he sees is strife: San-San (Lucilla Teoh) is a lonely obese woman verbally abused by her stepmother. A henpecked cuckold (Jack Neo) begs for the love of the angry wife he brought in from Beijing.

Finally, we visit an older brother named Meng (Koh Boon Pin) and his siblings. Meng is a repressed, bespectacled little perfect citizen who parrots official mottoes like "We must strive to be a more gracious society" and noses his way into the affairs of his restless sister, Trixie (Lum May Yee).

The direction is rocky, and it gets rockier as 12 Storeys goes on. But it's a brave film from a strict place, a fascinating view of a strangely familiar life on the other side of the world. The young director (just 33 when he made 12 Storeys) has captured an exciting look at a city-state whose vitality can't be killed by its own Puritanism.

The Pacific Rim Film Fest brings in selections from Hawaii, India, Thailand, Korea, Japan and the Philippines; the program runs April 26-30 at the Fox Theater in Watsonville and the Del Mar in Santa Cruz. Call 408/425-FILM for more information. After-film discussions and supporting broadcasts on Channel 72 are part of the fest, and--perhaps in honor of the spirit of Makekau--admission is free.

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From the April 23-29, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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