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Highly acclaimed by critics everywhere, this memorable story of passionate love is set amid the breathtaking scenery of a tropical paradise. With only a picture in hand, a beautiful young woman leaves behind all she knows for the far-off islands of Hawaii -- and an arranged marriage with a man she has never met. Though she initially regrets her decision, in time her new life on an island sugar plantation is filled with unexpected discovery and joy. Featuring Youki Kudoh (MYSTERY TRAIN) and Tamlyn Tomita (THE JOY LUCK CLUB), PICTURE BRIDE was the winner of the Audience Award for Best Dramatic Film at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival.
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Because of my personal connection to this story I decided to read through all the reviews to help keep an objective perspective when writing my review. I was pleasantly surprised by the number of majority of positive reviews especially since almost all the reviewers had no knowledge Japanese picture brides. The few criticisms were confined to production value that comes with the territory of being a low budget independent film, to whether a certain actor was the best choice for a part or only touching superficially on the complexity of the side plots, like worker conditions in the fields. It’s a shame that Picture Bride couldn’t have been made into a 2-3 part miniseries and delve in greater depth into these side plots like the complicated and intricate matchmaking process, the worker conditions and pay hierarchy based on ethnicity, to the widespread drinking and gambling that inflicted many of the husbands, or the injustice of having all their personal reminders, letters, pictures, wedding dresses and etc. of their families and ties to Japan confiscated by the FBI after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the indignity of not being allowed to become US citizens until the mid 1950’s when Federal law was changed allowing immigrant Asians to naturalize. These are the things these women endured during their lifetimes.
Let me say this movie is a tribute to these incredible young women, of ages 17-20 years old who before leaving home married a man only known in a picture and to journeyed thousands of miles to be his wife and the mother of his children in a foreign land where she doesn’t know the language and work at a job she had no training or prior skills to perform, (the 1905 Gentleman’s Agreement disallowed the issuance of new labor worker visas from Japan but allowed already visa workers and their families to come to the US; hence the picture bride phenomenon). Think of the incredible bravery it took for them to make the journey and the equally incredible strength they would exhibit to make the best out of their situation. Just imagine yourself doing what they did today and I think anyone can appreciate their story. Despite some of its shortcomings, (Director Kayo Hatta discusses these shortcoming on the director’s commentary), and after learning some details of my own grandmother’s experiences, I can say it’s very much authentic. How authentic? After describing the storyline to my mother, she refuses to watch it because it will bring back too many memories of her childhood and the sadness she felt for how her mother had to live. My mother has told me how her mother waited on the docks of Honolulu until there was only her and one man left, soon coming to the disheartening realization that he must be her husband and if she had the money she would have gotten back on board and returned to Japan. My aunt has told me how my grandmother’s friends, just before she left Japan, were so excited for her going on this “adventure.” Looking at a picture of my grandmother in Japan and another one a year after she arrived in Hawaii, she looks so small and delicate (one of the criticisms of using Youki Kudoh as Riyo, that she didn’t match the part - to prim and proper) and then a photo years later, the toll of her after years of toiling in the fields during the day, doing laundry at night then on the weekends ironing clothes from sunup to late into the night, I easily recognize the characters Riyo as before and Kana as after in those pictures.
All in all, Kayo Hatta’s Picture Bride is an amazing tribute these women and their stories. Films like Picture Bride, Come See the Paradise, Farewell to Manzanar (only read the book), Snow Falling on Cedars, and American Pastime are treasures that sadly go relatively unnoticed. They’re important for they not only expose Americans to Japanese-American (Nikkei) history, they more importantly expose Nikkei history to third and fourth generation Japanese-Americans who have “lost” their history because the older generation’s reluctance to tell their story.
The film focuses on two couples. Both wives were "Picture Brides", meaning their husbands selected them based on photographs. Photography was a new technology. In fact, it is not unlike Internet dating services today, where images are conveyed on computer screens, but at the time this was totally new. And like the Internet, no one was above deception. Ultimately this meant that prospective brides/grooms were not always what were expected.
Husbands and wives did grueling, dangerous work in the cane fields, marriages between total strangers so far from home were often harsh, and dreams and expectations often died along the way. Twenty thousand such marriages took place in Hawaii between 1908 and 1924. The stories were based on interviews conducted by the director with still-living "Picture Brides". The characters of the two women were based on the personalities of the director's grandmothers.
This novice director is absolutely outstanding, the film is magnificent to watch in the incomparable setting of Hawaii, the actors are superb, and it has captured the authentic feel of what it must have been like to be a "Picture Bride" arriving in Hawaii from Japan in the early 20th century. I look forward to seeing what future masterpieces this talented director will create.
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portrayed by a great cast.