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'Picture Bride' (PG-13)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 20, 1995

"Picture Bride" is a pleasant wedding of old-fashioned romance and Hawaiian labor history by Kayo Hatta, a Japanese American filmmaker paying homage to her hard-working ancestors. This fragile first film opens in 1918 in Tokyo, where Riyo (Youki Kudoh), a recently orphaned 16-year-old, agrees to an arranged marriage to a Japanese sugar cane worker in Hawaii. Like the mail-order brides in "The Piano" and "Heartland," Riyo is hardly prepared for the rugged frontier life that awaits her—much less the grumpy bridegroom.

Riyo, a frail city girl, sets sail for Hawaii with a shipload of other prospective brides, a photograph of the handsome young Matsuji (Akira Takayama) clutched in her hand. Upon landing on the beach, she is shocked to find that Matsuji is 20 years older than his picture. The 43-year-old bridegroom is just as disappointed with the puny Riyo. Though she is quite lovely, he had expected a sturdy farm girl to work alongside the other wives in the fields.

After a perfunctory group wedding, the two newlyweds ride through the humid night to Matsuji's home—a two-room shack. Riyo, a girl with a middle-class, albeit mysterious past, faints at the sight of her humble new home. The wedding night, a romantic disaster, gives way to the real nightmare the next morning when Riyo is given a hoe and put to work in the cane fields.

The other wives mock Riyo's good manners and weak constitution, but she eventually finds a friend and confidante in Kana (Tamlyn Tomita), whose good-looking husband has become increasingly abusive. Kana, who has learned that handsome is as handsome does, realizes the worth of the basically good-hearted Matsuji and plays cupid. At her suggestion, Matsuji takes Riyo away for a tour of the paradisiacal island, and the two grow a little closer. But they are driven apart again the next day when dangerous working conditions lead to tragedy.

"Picture Bride," like its director, is a Japanese American amalgam that borrows from diverse influences—everything from the domestic understatement of Yasujiro Ozu to the social posturing of John Sayles. Written by Hatta and her sister, Mari, the screenplay is in English, Japanese, an early Hawaiian patois and a bit of Portuguese, reflecting the many cultures that settled the frontier of Hawaii.

But for all its touches and influences, the film feels unfinished, almost as if it were the first chapter of a Pacific island saga. Ultimately, Hatta leaves it up to a narrator to complete the family history begun so long ago by Riyo, Matsuji . . . and Kodak.

Picture Bride, at Dupont Circle Odeon, is rated PG-13 for sensuality.

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