"Bwebwenato" storytelling and acting out dramatic tales is hardly a new phenomenon in the Marshall Islands, where communities often gather for church events or special celebrations to sing, dance, perform skits, and tell tales. In recent years, even Shakespearean plays combining Marshallese and Edwardian lore, in English and Marshallese, have become popular annual events. So it is no surprise that with the increasing accessibility and affordability of video technology, marrying bwebwenato with quality filmmaking was the next logical step.
Morning Comes So Soon was a joint project funded by UNESCO and conceived by Majuro's "Youth to Youth in Health" program and directors Aaron Condon and Mike Cruz. This first feature-length film to come from the Republic of the Marshall Islands was a runaway hit when it premiered there in May 2008. The film eclipsed box office sales of Hollywood films and sold out to packed audiences night after night. In October 2008 it was shown at the Hawai'i International Film Festival, where it also drew crowds and impressed audiences with not only its artistic filmmaking style [End Page 404] but also the fine performances of the amateur actors, most of whom were Marshall Islander and Chinese high school students at the time the film was made.
Described as a Marshallese version of Romeo and Juliet, the film features a story of "star-crossed" love between a Marshallese teenage boy named Leban (played by James Bing III) and his girlfriend, an immigrant named Mei-Lin (Ting Yu Lin), the daughter of a Chinese general store owner. The film does not romanticize the islandscape for us; rather it depicts everyday life on Majuro as it would be seen from the eyes of a Marshallese teenager. Leban and Mei-Lin's romance is played out subtly against the backdrop of present-day Majuro, with its hodgepodge of shops on land and purse-seine fishing trawlers in the lagoon, little kids playing in its narrow main road, and the classrooms of the island's Assumption High School.
Leban courts Mei-Lin despite ridicule from his Marshallese classmates, who express their disbelief and even disgust that Leban would even consider dating a "Chinese girl." As their teasing escalates into resentment and pressure for him to break up with Mei-Lin, Leban holds his ground, boldly inviting Mei-Lin to the school dance. Despite the concerns of her mother and brother who remain cloistered in their shop, Mei-Lin excitedly accompanies him to the dance, only to find herself the brunt of rude jokes and ostracism. She urges Leban to abandon his hopes of their being a true couple, but has difficulty suppressing her love for him. Yet when Leban's friends ransack her family's store in retaliation, Mei-Lin concludes that her only option is to return to China.
Distraught over Mei-Lin's decision and unable to reconcile his true love with the pressures of his parents and peers, Leban decides to take matters into his own hands. In a gut-wrenching scene, he gets drunk and then hangs himself from the oceanside tree where he and Mei-Lin used to meet. When his body is found the next morning, Mei-Lin also tries to end her life with an overdose of pills, only to awaken later in a hospital room, where she discovers that although Leban is gone, her family and Leban's family have begun to kindle a friendship with one another.
The power of Morning Comes So Soon comes from the rawness of its acting and the immediacy of the themes of both teen suicide and racial hatred. In the accompanying dvd extras, Bob Balos, a film crewmember and coordinator in Youth to Youth in Health, stresses that it was in fact the epidemic of teen...