Sundance 2022: ‘Every Day In Kaimukī’ explores meaning of home, complexities of heritage
“Every Day In Kaimukī” tackles the age-old question of what home means and the concept of belonging through Hawaiian millennial Naz Kawakami. Co-produced by alumnus Jesy Odio, the film follows Kawakami through his internal dilemmas as he plans to move to New York City. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute)
"Every Day In Kaimukī"
Directed by Alika Tengan
By Vivian Xu
Jan. 23, 2022 8:37 p.m.
In a tug-of-war between leaving and staying, one man stands in the middle.
Director Alika Tengan’s Sundance Film Festival debut in the festival’s NEXT category, “Every Day In Kaimukī,” explores the internal back-and-forth faced by Hawaiian millennial Naz Kawakami (Naz Kawakami) as he prepares to move from his hometown in Kaimukī to the mainland. The film is based on Tengan’s friend Kawakami’s real-life decision to move to New York City and blends together elements of truth and fiction. Tengan said. Co-produced by alumnus Jesy Odio, “Every Day in Kaimukī” seeks to reconcile the definition of home and what it means to leave it, Tengan said.
“(The film) is really rooted in our friend (and) his actual experience of where he was just in his life as a millennial – a mid-20-something having a semi-quarter-life crisis,” Tengan said. “It stems from just being true to who he was (and) what he was going through in the moment and interrogating what that means.”
Stuck in the creative frustrations caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Tengan said “Every Day in Kaimukī” began as a side project to fulfill his primary intention to get a film off the ground. What initially began as a documentary of Kawakami’s move morphed into a piece that blurs the line between fiction and reality, Tengan said, which encouraged Kawakami to fictionalize many of the internal struggles he was feeling.
While fact and fabrication are obfuscated in the plotline, the film’s cast is grounded in reality, Tengan said. It consists of Kawakami’s real friends, all of whom are non-professional actors. Within this group, Kawakami grapples with a multitude of existential questions in addition to his move to New York City, including his identity as a Hapa Hawaiian Japanese man and the feeling of being perceived as not Hawaiian or Japanese enough, he said. For Tengan, who also identifies as Hapa Hawaiian Japanese, the ability to represent this identity on screen is a chance to showcase to the audience a demographic that is more representative of Hawaiians.
“We are so inextricably in this melting pot together, and the Asian influence is so much a part of Hawaii’s latter history,” Tengan said. “(The film) is not about being Asian – it’s just there. It’s just inherent in the subject matter.”
Hawaii itself is also intrinsically present in the story, as both a physical setting and representative of a place that pushes and pulls Kawakami. The overarching theme of questioning one’s impetus to stay or leave is particularly poignant due to the setting of the film, Odio said. As a Costa Rican, she said places like Hawaii and Costa Rica have commonly been idealized by the modern zeitgeist as places to take a vacation, rather than a place to leave.
“When I watched the first two minutes (of the film), it was a euphoric feeling of everyone (having) this dilemma of, ‘Should I stay? Should I go?’ And how much that connects with your identity,” Odio said. “People from all over the world know that we’re not monolithic – we don’t stay in a singular place.”
In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, migration also takes a new form, Odio said. The pandemic underscored the fact that one’s occupation is no longer anchored by location, she said, and consequently many of Kawakami’s internal debacles are rooted in his integrity rather than materialistic pull factors. This further muddles Kawakami’s ability to justify his leave from Kaimukī and forces him to question larger ideas of identity and purpose, Odio said.
Despite its migration-centric premise, the film’s consistent Hawaiian setting allows it to subtly subvert expectations of pop culture’s construction of Hawaii as an exotic reprieve from ordinary life, co-producer and director of photography Chapin Hall said. Characters stroll down cement streets and cruise in skate parks as inhabitants of an urban environment, as opposed to lounging on the beach or engaging in tourist activities like viewers may expect them to, he said.
As “Every Day In Kaimukī” is the first Native Hawaiian feature film to be showcased at Sundance, Hall said he hopes those who watch the film are able to reframe their preconceived notions of Hawaii. Rather than unveiling the complementary half of the dichotomy, the film elucidates another face of the island and reckons with the factors that may provoke someone to leave it, he said.
“The film is not necessarily, ‘Here’s the flip side,’” Hall said. “It’s not a flip side – it’s just, ‘Here’s another side. Here’s something that you don’t see necessarily, even though it’s probably passing you by on the street when you come as a tourist.’ This life is walking the opposite direction down the sidewalk.”