Film Review: Kumu Hina

By Joy Chiang Ling

Kumu Hina, a documentary directed by Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson, chronicles the life of a Hawaiian transgendered woman named Hina Wong-Kalu. She is a “kumu,” means “teacher” in the native Hawaiian tongue. A hula dancer since she was a young man, Hina passes down her skills to students at a school that seeks to preserve Hawaiian traditions. One of her students is a young tomboy named Ho’onani, who leads the male hula troupe. The film documents both of their lives in order to promote a better understanding of both Hawaiian culture and the transgendered community.

The film’s title seems to take on two different meanings. Hina is both a “kumu” in the literal sense – a Hawaiian schoolteacher – and a figurative “kumu” to the viewers of the film. Audiences will be made aware of the challenges that Hina faces in both her professional and private life. As a community leader, she faces obstacles that try to impede her goals simply because she is different. As a wife to her Tongan husband, she faces emotional abuse and is forced to choose between living alone and living with one of the few people who loves her despite her atypical gender and sexual preferences.

The people that the documentary chooses to film are highly memorable and engaging. Besides Hina, there is her husband, Hema and her tomboy student, Ho’onani.. A Tongan farmer who enjoys consuming kava root and playing music with his friends, Hema is a character that is quick to dislike for his jealousy and rough disposition. However, Hina constantly reminds viewers of his pure and giving side – a side that chooses to love a transgendered woman despite the social stigma attached to it. The couple’s relationship is at times contentious and hard to watch, but also endearing and heartfelt.

Ho’onani, a young girl who prefers spending time with the boys in her class, is also an inspiring figure. Her relationship with her teacher seems to go beyond just learning hula, as the two share a sincere connection which is summed up in one particularly poignant scene: a few days before their final hula performance, Hina and Ho’onani embrace each other in comfort as Hina reassures her student that she can take on any role she wants even though others might not be as accepting.

Kumu Hina is a film that will stir controversy. It is also a film that will elicit strong emotions in its audience. With its passionate characters and compelling subject matter, Kumu Hina will successfully engage audiences and perhaps teach people a thing or two about the beauty of tolerance and acceptance.

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