Parts Of The Same Circle, which screens in HIFF on Sat., Oct., 20 at 11:30am, is a remarkable achievement in three ways: It is a Hawaii-made D.I.Y. feature that displays a consistent and compelling filmic sense, it pulls off the most difficult of dramatic structures (weaving multiple storylines into a single narrative) and it presents its subject matter–death–in a way that is neither maudlin nor fatalistic.
That’s not to say the film is perfect–far from it. But the filmmakers–a close-knit hui of local actors, writers, and technicians–should be commended for taking the risk of producing a complex, character-intensive, serious film about a serious topic.
Parts Of The Same Circle (the “Parts” referring to Life and Death) intercuts 11 separate stories of Oahu residents dealing with death and dying. The most memorable include a dysfunctional trio of Japanese-American siblings dealing with the death of their father; three retired golf cronies joined by a mainland dentist for a foursome; an obituary writer who sobs uncontrollably when talking on the phone to relatives of the deceased; a stand-up comic who entertains at hospitals and retirement homes; a middle-aged man who asks a woman with advanced-stage cancer to marry him; and a bank executive who is required by his boss to go on a ghost tour. Tying all of the threads together is a minister who counsels on end-of-life issues and is loosely based on the late hospice pioneer Dr. Mitsuo Aoki (to whom the film is dedicated).
Amidst all of the high drama attached to the heavy subject matter, the small, human details make the film an authentic viewing experience: the silent golf crony totally transfixed by the mochi he constantly eats; the obituary writer mopping up spilled coffee with her Kleenex when she realizes she has been cured of her crying jags; the mentally ill sister striking a mock preacher pose in front of the stained-glass window of a church. Moments like these help make the characters and their predicaments believable and, for the most part, save them from caricature and cliché.
What keeps the film moving through its treacherous plot twists is the fluid, naturalistic approach to the camera work and lighting. Co-Directors Denny Hironaga and Eric Nemoto achieve a fine texture with the film’s look and the staging of the action, convincing us that the individual story threads are being woven into a singular fabric.
Where the film falters is in some of the performances. Creating dozens of roles was, perhaps, too great a risk. The cast is made up of professionals and non-professionals. The pros often appear too comfortable in their roles, as if to say “I’ve got this under control. I’m a pro.” Given the emotionally charged subject matter, I would have preferred to see some of them spin out of control. Some of the non-pros, while giving it the old college try, simply come off as amateurish.
The actors in the middle of the spectrum hit the sweet spot. They inhabit their characters and give very natural performances without exposing their acting machinery hard at work. The actors in the golf foursome, the obituary writer, and the mentally ill sister hit this zone and give the best performances.
Despites its flaws, watching Parts Of The Same Circle is an authentically moving and thought-provoking experience. I found myself crying and laughing throughout the movie without once feeling manipulated. The fact that a film like this has seen the light of day tells me that Hawaii’s independent film movement is finally starting to grow up. What it took was courage, commitment, and intelligence–qualities that these filmmakers have in spades.