“Picture Bride” tells an immigrant saga the outlines of which are similar to many others, albeit one of some distinction based on its unique historical setting. Apparently the first commercial dramatic feature directed by an Asian-American woman, pic is tasteful, careful and quite lacking in dramatic surprises, but represents a respectable job of ethno-cultural roots-finding and re-creation. Strongly female-oriented, this Miramax pickup should be able to capture a portion of the “Joy Luck Club” audience, even if the film is much less complex, ambitious and emotionally potent than that recent success.
Although stylistically different, opening sections unavoidably recall “The Piano,” as a woman travels across the sea to join an intended husband she’s never met, only to find unhappiness due to the man’s insensitivity and the primitive physical surroundings.
Time and place here is the territory of Hawaii in 1918, around which time nearly 20,000 Japanese women left their homeland to marry laborers on the islands, thereby helping to build the foundation of the Japanese-American community there.
To leave behind what are only described as her “past” and “bad memories,” 17 -year-old Riyo (Youki Kudoh, of Jim Jarmusch’s “Mystery Train”) is sent from Yokohama to Hawaii as a “picture bride” on the basis of an exchange of photographs between her and a sugar-cane worker.
Upon arrival, she is shocked to discover that Matsuji (Akira Takayama) is much older than he looked in his portrait, and at least 25 years her senior. He apologizes for sending an out-of-date photo, and she, with impressive fortitude, refuses to consummate their marriage.
But Riyo is in no position to back off the hard work on the sugar plantation, even though, as a slim city girl, she’s not as sturdy as many of the other female workers.
Desperately unhappy but with nowhere to turn, she befriends another Japanese woman, Kana (Tamlyn Tomita), who has a small child, and eventually resolves to work extremely hard, both in the fields and doing laundry, in order to earn enough to pay her way home.
At 65 cents per day, however, it’s going to take a long time to save up the necessary $ 300. Things don’t get much better with Matsuji, who tries to take her money for a worker strike fund he’s organizing and, upon learning that her parents died of tuberculosis, tells her he wouldn’t have accepted the match had he known this before.
For a long time, Riyo is just as stubborn a character as Holly Hunter’s in “The Piano.” Ultimately, however, after a tragedy involving Kana, Riyo and her husband get together, and some final narration makes it clear that she finally accepted her position as a pioneer of her particular class of Hawaiian residents.
Hawaiian-born helmer Kayo Hatta and her sister Mari based their script on an assortment of true-life experiences of real picture brides, and the film offers numerous interesting cultural details, such as the unique songs the workers sang in the fields, the moderate tensions among Asians from different countries, and the ways in which some old traditions were retained and others were dropped.
Much of the dialogue is in Japanese with English subtitles, although characters frequently fall into pidgin English. One particularly vivid sequence has the great Toshiro Mifune appear briefly as a traveling benshi, or narrator of a silent samurai film projected on a sheet outdoors.
All the same, most of the incidents have a familiar ring, as the attitudes, adjustment difficulties, racist policies and assorted injustices are quite typical of colonial-era stories everywhere, and the cultural, ethnic and religious conflict during this period in Hawaii seems to have been rather less severe than in many other places. This in no way minimizes what the pioneers went through, but does make for less than exciting drama.
While paying great attention to composition and detail, Hatta sets a relatively slow pace and, except for the subject, nothing in the film evinces any artistic adventurousness. Pic has been made with evident love but conveys little passion or zeal.
As the long-suffering Riyo, Kudoh is exemplary, although the viewer is never really allowed inside her head. Tomita also delivers as the ill-fated Kana, and acting throughout is solid.
Outfitted with a professional post-production sheen by Miramax after its acquisition, pic looks exceedingly handsome, thanks partly to the exceptional locations, marked notably by the green plant life, red earth and generally overcast skies, and also to Claudio Rocha’s lensing.