Dir: Lee Sang-il. Jap. 2006. 108mins

Hula Girls has allthe ingredients for a crowd-pleasing heartwarmer butit sweats and strains to make the recipe work. Despite being based on trueevents it feels entirely formulaic with even the most casual cinemagoer likelyto be one step ahead of every twist and turn in the plot. The comedy is verybroad, the sentiment is shameless and the charm is thinly spread over anexcessive running time.

Unlikely to win criticalfavour, it could still connect with a Japanese mainstream audience - it opensat home on Sept 23 - in search of undemanding, feel good entertainment.International prospects look slim although just like Shall We Dance it might have remake potential; a boost could alsocome if it progresses to awards night as Japan's submission for best foreignlanguage Oscar.

It may give the impressionof having been cobbled together after a marathon viewing session of The Full Monty, Brassed Off and Billy Elliottbut Hula Girls was actually inspiredby a real incident from the 1960s.

Facing the steady decline ofthe local coal mining industry, Iwaki City innorthern Japan decides to put its faith and economic future into the creationof a lavish Hawaiian Centre complete with hot springs and hula dancers.Teenager Kimiko (Etsushi Toyokawa) is among the first to sign up for a newprofession as a dancer despite the stern disapproval of her mother.

Madoka Hirayama (Yasuko Matsuyuki)is the Tokyo outsider hired to whip her raw recruits into shape before anationwide publicity tour and grand opening night celebration. Naturally, thismeans we witness a rehearsal montage of self-conscious ineptitude and gradualtriumph.

Predictably, there isopposition within a traditional community to women becoming the wage earnersand challenging the natural order of things and there are both cultural andgeneration gaps to be bridged before the big finale.

Lacking the quirky detail orfully developed secondary characters that might have enhanced the film's appealand reflected its roots in reality, HulaGirls sticks to a tried and tested format, tugging at the heartstrings withan accident at the mine, snatching success from adversity and emphasising thetear-stained bonds that develop between Hirayama and her growing band ofhip-shaking students.

The sense of period is justone of the elements lacking from a film that never explores the social andsexual politics of the story in any great depth. Hula Girls is heavy going at times but improves in the second halfas the triumph of the underdog formula starts to wear down your resistance. Butthere is a lasting sense that writer/director Lee Sang-ilhas squandered the potential for a much better film.

Cinematographer HideoYamamoto provides some sense of the contrasts in the story as the bleak, landscapes of the mining community are balanced bythe colour and exuberance of the dances.

Production company
Cine Qua Non

International Sales
Fortissimo Films

Executive producers
Lee Bong-ou
Hiroshi Kawai
Yoshiaki Hosono

Hitomi Ishihara

Daisuke Habara
Lee Sang-il

Hideo Yamamoto

Tsuyoshi Imai

Production design
Yohei Taneda

Jake Shimabukuro

Main cast
Yasuko Matsuyuki
Etsushi Toyokawa
Yu Aoi
Shizuyo Yamazaki
Ittoku Kishibe