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Reviewed by:
  • Ña Noniep, and: Yokwe Bartowe
  • Rich Carr
Ña Noniep. Feature film, 108 minutes, DVD, color, 2009. Written, produced, and directed by Jack Niedenthal; distributed by Microwave Films. Marshallese with English subtitles.
Yokwe Bartowe. Feature film, 90 minutes, DVD, color, 2010. Written by Jack Niedenthal; directed and produced by Jack Niedenthal and Suzanne Chutaro; distributed by Microwave Films. Marshallese with English subtitles. Both films can be ordered from US$7.99 each including shipping within the United States or Canada; US$15.99 including shipping outside the United States and Canada.

Two recent films offer Marshallese versions of the familiar coming-of-age story. Both films follow the journey of a young male resident of the Marshall Islands as he experiences a crisis that sets him down the wrong path. Ña Noniep centers on Liki (Randon Jack), a gifted boy of middle-school age who, because of tragic events involving adults in his family, becomes the target of another family’s thirst for revenge. Yokwe Bartowe focuses on Bartowe (Lyel Tarkwon), a college-age man instructed to watch his young sister as she swims in the ocean. Momentarily distracted by the piercing cry of a gull, Bartowe turns his attention back to the water and finds only a rubber ball. Lijiamao (Billma Melson), his beloved sister, has apparently drowned.

Although both narratives focus on the common theme of individuals struggling to find themselves in a confusing world, the films offer a Marshallese flavor. Yes, we see a [End Page 544] world of modern trappings—homes, schools, mobile phones; but we also see the familiar features of island life: palm trees, bright colors, ocean. More memorably, beyond images of a Pacific paradise or the schools designed to develop a modern, educated workforce, we see a society in transition: youth with nothing to do, young men who seek respite from their purposelessness in those potent symbols of aimlessness—alcohol, drugs, and suicide. Most startlingly, we see an ostensibly Christian world in which the spirits of the Marshallese past are alive and active. For viewers seeking insight into Marshallese culture, this last area is the most illuminating and is the most compelling reason to see these films.

Liki, the protagonist of Ña Noniep, is a child prodigy. His parents scold him for spending his waking hours, and what should be his sleeping hours, reading. “You have to sleep too,” his father says. “You want to do well in school.” Yet Liki evidently has no problem with academic achievement. In math class, when no one else can solve the problems displayed on the blackboard, the teacher turns to Liki. Even though it seems he has not been paying attention, he looks up and swiftly, confidently solves the problems, eliciting cheers from the other students. Liki’s best friend at school is Miko (Lulani Ritok), a young girl who resists good-naturedly his efforts to turn her into a fellow prodigy. Miko opts for playing her ukulele over joining Liki in reading. This life comes to a halt when Miko’s parents are involved in a head-on car collision with Liki’s parents. Instead of watching the road, Miko’s father had been obsessively texting his friends. He, his wife, and Miko’s younger brother all die in the crash.

Beset by grief and an accompanying desire for revenge, Lijimu (Netha Gideon), Miko’s grandmother and now her guardian, targets Liki, the most visible member of the family whom she blames for killing her son, for punishment. Beginning by forbidding interaction between Miko and Liki, Lijimu, known widely for her mischief-making powers, launches a full-blown scheme to destroy the unwitting Liki.

In Yokwe Bartowe, Bartowe lives with his parents and his two sisters and attends the local college. He also has a steady girlfriend, Kaila (Martha Horiuchi). At the opening of the film, Lijiamao, the younger of his sisters, swims while Bartowe studies for a test and keeps an eye on her. A momentary distraction—the cry of a gull—leads to tragedy. When Bartowe fixes his eyes again on the water, Lijiamao is gone—drowned. The story continues one year later...