Sunday 31 July 2022

An overlooked Australian film (3) - AYA (Solrun Hoaas, 1990)

Solrun Hoaas

Solrun Hoaas was a good friend. She made one dramatic feature film Aya in 1990. This film followed on from a medium-length documentary Green Tea and Cherry Ripe  produced by Solrun and Karen Foley in 1989.  Both films examined the life and times of Japanese war brides who came to Australia after World War 2

Following Aya  Solrun unsuccessfully sought funding for other feature projects. Her last films were two insightful documentaries about North Korea, Pyongyang Diaries  and Rushing to Sunshine. Solrun died after a short illness in 2004. Green Tea and Cherry Ripe  and many of her short films has been remastered by Ronin Films and are available for purchase on DVD or via Video on Demand  IF YOU CLICK HERE.

Aya  is available on DVD but needs remastering. Screening materials held by the NFSA are not in the best condition and are unsuitable for public screening. No DCP is available to allow the film to screen in theatres and festivals. The NFSA, however, holds the original negatives from which the film could be remastered.

When the film was first released Amree Hewitt wrote a very positive review for Film News (cover above). A couple of extracts follow:

"Aya (1990), the debut feature for writer/director Solrun Hoaas, is a richly textured portrait of a young Japanese woman (played by Eri Ishida) in the Australia of the fifties and sixties. Constructed around a series of vignettes from her life (spanning two decades and starting with Aya newly arrived and recently married), the film – which follows her, her husband Frank (Nicholas Eadie), and ex-army member of the Australian forces deployed in postwar Japan and their mutual friend Mac (Chris Haywood) – is an engaging, complex exploration of persona strength and cultural differences....

"For me Aya is Solrun Hoaas’ tour-de-force filmmaking achievement, taking pride of place in a body of work, which includes experimental and documentary forms, that is a consistently rewarding cinematic experience."

Nicholas Eadie, Eri Ishida, Aya

Amree Hewitt revisited the film in 2010 as a contribution to a Dossier on Solrun compiled by Senses of Cinema:

"What was compelling for me on my first viewing of Aya – its challenging formal qualities (episodic and narratively elliptical), distillation of the image, and embrace of intimate detail – is still striking, and despite what grates (performances from some of the minor cast members, uneven tone and dated musical underpinning of scenes) the film, at its core, now feels like an even more complex emotional journey. Much of this feeling emanates from the casual, veiled intensity of the wonderful Nicholas Eadie, the quiet isolation captured by Eri Ishida as Aya, and the understated élan of Chris Haywood. Yet this feeling also arises from a resolute directorial style that eschews the lures of melodrama.

Chris Haywood, Aya

"Aya won the CICAE prize at the Torino International Film Festival, garnered the Asia Pacific Film Festival’s Best Actress award for Ishida, screened in over 14 international festivals, and was nominated for six AFI Awards including Best Actress. Writer-director Hoaas never got the opportunity to make another fiction feature film. The difficult paths of both commercial and government funding that need to come together to support creative feature projects never converged again for this filmmaker despite her hard work, passion and strong script ideas. It feels like a lost opportunity not to be able to have seen this director build and refine her craft in the form of feature film storytelling, however Aya still stands as her cinematic touchstone and a keenly felt indicator of what might have been.

Eri Ishida, Aya

When Solrun died Karen  and I wrote the following tribute which is now on the Ronin Films website.

Solrun was born on 15 August 1943 in Trondheim, Norway to missionary parents who had been in China before the war. She was the only girl and had three brothers. After the war the Hoaas family returned to China, but the revolution in 1949 saw them move to Hong Kong for a year, then to Kobe, Japan, where they lived throughout the '50s and part of the '60s. The home was a Lutheran church school in the Aotani district of the city. After attending the Norwegian primary school in Shiotaki near Kobe Solrun went to the Canadian Academy, an international school in that city. Upon graduation from its high school she spent a year in the United States, then travelled to Norway where she enrolled at the University of Oslo, majoring in social anthropology. In 1969 she received a Japanese Ministry of Education scholarship to do graduate studies at Kyoto University and that is where she met Roger Pulvers. They were married in February 1970 in Kyoto and divorced in 1982.

Karen and I met Solrun and Roger when they arrived in Canberra in the early 70s. They both threw themselves enthusiastically into the local theatre scene, Roger as a writer and director, Solrun as a designer. We knew that they had met and married in Japan, a country where Solrun had also spent much of her childhood and adolescence as the daughter of Christian missionaries.

As it happened Karen and I came back to Melbourne in 1980, the same year that Roger was appointed to a job with the Playbox Theatre. When Solrun arrived she was admitted to the post-graduate course in film production at Swinburne College. We kept in touch. Solrun was a prolific film-maker and one of her films went on at my 1981 Melbourne Film Festival. It was her graduation film for Swinburne In Search of the Japanese, a satiric study of Australian incomprehension of Japanese/Australian relations.

We came back to Canberra in 1985 but we were close friends by this stage and our years in Melbourne saw us sharing each other's company frequently, especially at Christmas. In one memorable Christmas a boat load of Solrun's relatives were visiting. Her niece Guro-Marte was doing a part of her medical degree at an Australian hospital and the family descended to join her. All told another ten people or so from Norway joined us around the Christmas table for an especially festive occasion.

Her films, which she continued to make prolifically, by now were being distributed by Andrew Pike's Canberra company Ronin Films and she had ambitions to make dramatic features. Before that could happen she with Karen as co-producer and some funds from Andrew Pike had got funding from Film Victoria, for an hour long documentary on Japanese war brides. This was to become Green Tea and Cherry Ripe. It was filmed in Melbourne and post-produced in Canberra. For six months or so Solrun lived in Canberra again, the office next to mine in the deepest reaches of the backstage of the Canberra Theatre became an editing suite, the editor Stewart Young lived in our house in Narrabundah (Heights), and the film took shape. It's a touching documentary about a group of women that Solrun located and with whom she maintained friendships thereafter.

Solrun then got funding for a script she had written for a dramatic feature about a Japanese War bride living in Australia in the 50s. At that stage Karen had to decide whether to join the film production or stay with the Electric Shadows Bookshop she had opened. She stayed with the bookshop and Denise Patience came on board as Producer. Aya starred Nicholas Eadie and the Japanese actress Eri Ishida. Regrettably it didn't click with the Australian public and Solrun never got another chance to do another feature film.

This wasn't for lack of trying or lack of enthusiasm. She wrote a large number of scripts, many of them dealing with themes involving Australia and Japan, but they were not received sympathetically. Undeterred she continued to travel to Japan and also accepted invitations to visit South Korea. As was Solrun's wont, she pushed the authorities until she got a visa to North Korea as well and, seizing the moment and using the new digital technology, put together a remarkable little film about her travels. This was Pyongyang Diaries one of the first films to show anything of what life is like in this odd and very secretive society. It earned her more than a little money, some festival screenings and an ASIO interview. She followed this film with another documentary about North and South Korean relations, 00 which also had some international success.

In recent years Solrun had devoted much of her time to studying and practising print making. She was an inveterate student, constantly enrolling in classes to study new technologies, and latterly getting herself very involved in print-making classes. Much of the visual material she used for her prints derived from stills of her own films which she reworked and recoloured into quite remarkable pieces of art. In the last year or so she had been represented in a number of group shows and had solo exhibitions at Gasworks Arts Precinct, the Joshua McClelland Print Room, the Benalla Gallery and the Albion Street Gallery in Sydney.

It's only a couple of weeks ago that Solrun rang to say that she had been diagnosed with a cancer. There was some hope that it might be operated upon but further tests would determine that. Last Friday she went to hospital for a scan, suffered a heart attack and went into a coma. Only a matter of hours later it was decided that the life support systems should be turned off. It was shockingly sudden.

We are left with extraordinary memories of a wonderful person. Our walls at home are decorated with a number of her prints and they will serve as a constant reminder of the life and work of a great and loyal friend with whom, for the first time in a couple of decades, we wont be sharing Christmas. We will miss her."

We still do...

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