Old Pali Road on Oahu is a winding road rumored to be haunted or at least the site of various hauntings. The movie, “Pali Road,” takes the mystical doings of folk lore, adds an Asian folk tale and tacks this on to a contemporary mystery to make an unsatisfying romance.
The travel guide Weird U.S. mentions a half-face ghost on Old Pali Road, a young girl left to rot after being strangled by a jump rope after she had been raped. It reports that she has been seen skipping rope, her long black hair tossed with each hop and her eyes bulging out as if frozen by her last moments.
Pali Road leads to Pali Lookout where Honolulu Magazine tells us, “one of the bloodiest battles in Hawai’i’s history occurred” when “Kamemehameha’s warriors forced Maui chief Kalanikupule’s men to their deaths off the cliff.” That deed left 400 warriors dead, but united the Hawaiian Islands under King Kamemehameha I.
“Pali Road” isn’t a horror flick so there’s no rotting girl skipping rope nor ghostly warriors falling to their death. Instead a young doctor named Lily (Michelle Chen) is haunted by what might have been. Lily has been dating an earnest teacher, Neal Lang (Jackson Rathbone). He’s an easy-going guy and when he’s introduced to Lily’s ex-boyfriend, Dr. Mitch Kayne (Sung Kang), we can easily understand why Lily chose him over this particular doctor. Kayne is a jerk, trying to snub Neal while all three are at a social function.
Neal and Lily take a drive up Pali Road. Looking down from there, Neal brings out a pop-up card that he and his students have made. It relates the Chinese/Japanese folk tale of Tanabata or “Evening of the Seventh.” In that tale, the stars Vega, the Weaver Maid/Princess and Altair, the Cow herder. They are in love, but they neglect their duties. The gods then decide they must be separated and place the Silver River (the Milky Way) between them. They are only allowed to meet once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh month, when the magpies build an bridge. Using this tale, Neil proposes to Lily; the pop-up of the magpie bridge at the center of the card holds an engagement ring.
Lily doesn’t accept. It’s not the right time, she claims. As they drive down Pali Road, Neal asks her when will it be the right time. Lily wonders if it wouldn’t be better if she had never met Neal. The mysterious forces at Pali Road must have been listening. Fate decides to separate them; they have an accident. When Lily awakens next, she is in bed and married to Mitch Kayne. What’s more they have a little boy, James (Maddox Lim), and no one remembers Neal.
Lily doesn’t recognize this life and she lives between flashes of her past and desperate attempts to find evidence of Neal and her memories of them together in her new reality. She sees a therapist (Henry Ian Cusick) and leans on her friend Amy (Lauren Sweetser).
Under director Jonathan Lim, Doc Pedrolie and Victoria Arch’s script doesn’t give us the emotional pull we need to sympathize with either Chen’s Lily or Kang’s mystified Mitch. Kayne comes off as too much of a jerk and somewhat sleazy in his introductory scenes. We can easily see why Lily left him, but not why Lily should have ever considered him. After Lily’s accident, that makes it hard for us to sympathize with Mitch as a husband. Oahu may be a small island, but Lily surely has more choices unless the post-accident Mitch is a totally different guy in this different alternative timeline. Some parts of the alternative reality don’t make sense such as the complete disappearance of Neal’s workplace.
If Lim had been able to elicit more nuanced performances from Chen and Kang, perhaps we would have seen and felt the chemistry between Lily and Mitch and understood she had two choices of almost equal suitors. The alternative reality scenes also have a sterile feeling. I understand the decision of the colder light and blue hues, but the life is too immaculate and orderly. We do feel the beauty of Oahu, but we don’t see the more ordinary places where even successful doctors might venture. After all, even President Obama has Waiola Shave Ice in Kapahulu.
If you do go to see “Pali Road,” pay careful attention to what an old woman says at the beginning. For romantics, love ultimately wins in this movie although the ending is more bittersweet than happy. “Pali Road” is currently opened Friday and is currently at AMC Atlantic Times Square 14, AMC Burbank Town Center 8 and AMC Puente Hills 20.