By Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu | Animation
A Hawaiian story of healing and aloha has been hidden from history -- until now.

Long ago, four beings of androgynous and ambiguous spirit, led by a healer named Kapaemahu, arrived in Hawaii. They were tall, and deep in voice, yet had gently soft-spoken demeanors. They were strangers but quickly grew beloved by the local population for their prowess at healing, which was prodigious, due to their ability to access both their masculine and feminine sides within themselves.

In tribute to the visitors, the village erects four healing stones on Waikiki Beach, known now as the Wizard Stones, which the healers imbued with their spirit. But as time marches on, the power of the stones, as well as the ambiguous identities of the healers they honored, become hidden, even covered by a bowling alley at one point. And as the healers’ status as both male and female is erased, the power of the stones recedes as well, forgotten or oversimplified by the modern world.

This mythic, gorgeously conceived Oscar-shortlisted animation — written and directed by Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson, with director of animation Daniel Sousa — may be short in format, but its sweep is epic in feel, bringing to life a powerful legend with a compelling authenticity and rich storytelling. Relayed in the language of Olelo Niihau, a rare dialect of Hawaiian spoken before Western contact, the story captures a vein of spiritual wisdom, bringing it back to light and consciousness as an act of love and honor.

The hand-painted visual style — developed by Oscar-nominated animation director Daniel Sousa — has an elemental simplicity in line, combined with rich, earthy colors, sumptuous textures and a sense of movement that dazzles the eye and imagination. Layered and intricate, the images reflect the heritage, flora and fauna of Hawaii with stately elegance. And when combined with an evocative sound design, beautiful musical score and compelling voiceover, it makes for a stunning achievement in cinematic craftsmanship and a feast for the eyes.

But the real innovation is found in the narrative, which functions in the register of legends and myths, told in the Hawaiian story tradition that it originated within and retaining the values of acceptance that underlie the culture. This version of “Kapaemahu” restores the full identity of Kapaemahu and the other healers, which treats categories like gender in a more fluid, even gentler way — and without the rigidity, shame or denial that Westernizations have brought to the tale.

The story of the healers in “Kapaemahu” can be read in an archetypal way, as befitting a myth or legend. But it also makes clear that the ability to draw on the ability of the mahus to draw on their inner male and inner female is the source of their power as healers, teachers and leaders. In the end, restoring this authenticity not only honors the healers, but honors fluidity as an asset that allows all of us to access our full power. In the ability to embrace all aspects of themselves — dark and light, feminine and masculine, strong and weak — we become fuller, more empowered people, with the full spectrum of humanity available within us.

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