Blowing in the ‘Wind’

Molokai-set drama is racking up awards

David L. Cunningham’s “The Wind and the Reckoning” is a Hawai‘i-based historical drama that, while traveling the 2022 festival circuit, has won best feature awards from the Boston and San Diego film festivals. Yes, it’s that good. 

It’s set on Molokai in 1893. Jason Scott Lee stars as Ko‘olau, a Hawaiian farmer whose family is living an intentionally quiet life, hidden from the authorities. A leprosy outbreak has local lawmen forcing all Native Hawaiians to relocate to the Molokai leper colony. Ko’olau and Pi’ilani, his wife (played by Lindsay Watson) refuse to submit and join a resistance group, while a mob on horseback is in constant pursuit.

Lindsay Watson stars in “The Wind and the Reckoning.” Courtesy Lynmar Entertainment

Positioning itself somewhere between a historical western and a Terrence Malick film, Cunningham’s film has been crafted with skill, passion, and righteous anger. In terms of its vision, creative goals, caliber of performances and respect for its subject matter, this is among the most engrossing films ever made about Hawai‘i. 

Cunningham’s film is full of excellent performances, starting with Jason Scott Lee, Matt Corby, Lindsay Watson, Henry Ian Cusick, and an unrecognizable Jonathan Schaech. Lee, in particular, is so powerful and touching here—the actor has played everyone from Bruce Lee to Mowgli but, once again, surprises us with the depth of feeling in his acting. I initially didn’t recognize Corby, who was a scene-stealer in the recent Maui-made indie “Aloha Surf Hotel.” Here, he shares one of the most intense scenes with Lee and gives a menacing performance.

At a little over 90-minutes, it’s tight, well-paced and always involving. Considering the scale of the story and the history within, the brisk running time and fullness of the narrative is remarkable. Some of the shoot-outs are exciting, though their sense of loss and tragedy is always present. The closing scenes, which sneak up on you, are tremendously moving.  

Not all of the filmmaker’s choices work. The overuse of drone footage calls attention to itself. A few of the supporting turns are a bit too contemporary and, not surprisingly considering the loaded subject matter, it’s never subtle. Yet, the attempts to bring balance and insight to the difficult topics the film raises is another of its strong qualities. 

Even as the story becomes a variation on “The Fugitive” in the third act, it effectively conveys the time and place. Cunningham made an impression with his notable 1998 indie, “Beyond Paradise,” which hasn’t aged well. He’s come a long way. John Fusco’s screenplay aims for authenticity and awareness, in addition to shaping a rousing and painful chase. 

Cunningham has made a plea for cultural understanding and a tribute to Hawaiians who have suffered under oppressive forces. As a portrait of Hawaiians in a way that is complex, layered, respectful and knowing, his achievement deserves mention alongside other recent works that are outstanding examples of Hawai‘i in film: Mitchell Merrick’s “Water Like Fire” (2020), Christopher Kahunahana’s “Waikiki” (2020), Brian Kohne’s “Kuleana” (2017) and, one of the highest profile of these examples, the late Kayo Hatta’s “Picture Bride” (1995). These works share an honesty, empathy and deeply felt reflections on the struggles of indigenous Hawaiians.

As a cinematic tribute to Ko’olau and Pi’ilani, the filmmakers have provided audiences with an overdue exploration of a vital piece of Hawaiian history and created a significant work of Hawaiian cinema. 

Sometimes we feel obligated to support locally made independent films because they were made, rather than what they achieve; here is another recent example of a “locally produced” labor of love that, in addition to getting the specifics of culture and history right, is mightily entertaining. 

Barry Wurst