"Picture Bride" won the Audience Award for Best Dramatic Film at the 1995 Sundance Festival. Little wonder. This love story -- co-written and directed by the Hawaiian-born, Japanese-American filmmaker, Kayo Hatta -- touches all the bases that would make it popular with the Robert Redford crowd: It is politically correct; it is gender-correct; it is relationship-correct; it is ethnicity-correct; it is ecologically correct; and it is BOOOORIIIING.
The plot can be summarized relatively painlessly. It's Tokyo in 1918. Riyo (Youki Kudoh), a 16-year-old beauty recently orphaned, is coaxed into an arranged marriage by a well-meaning aunt who urges her to seek refuge from her troubled past. That means emigration to Hawaii and marriage to a sugar-cane worker, Matsuji (Akira Takayama). Riyo doesn't like the idea, but Matsuji's photograph shows him to be a young, handsome man. His poetic letters to her, describing Hawaii as a demi-paradise, intrigue her.
Matsuji really didn't write the letters and the photograph was taken more than 20 years before -- when he was handsome -- and life as a cane-cutter turns out to be backbreaking and dangerous work. Riyo submits to the work but won't submit to Matsuji. But Matsuji's a Nipponese Alan Alda; he patiently accepts Riyo's sexual rejection of him and even understands when she takes on extra work as a laundress to earn her passage back to Japan.
But, little by little, Riyo begins to bond with the other workers, who include exploited Filipinos and Chinese as well as Japanese. And Riyo strikes up a friendship with another young woman, Kana (Tamilyn Tomita), whose young, good-looking husband is much less the man that her own Matsuji is. It also turns out that Riyo's been practicing some deceptions of her own (about her past). Before you can say golden oldies such as "solidarity," "union" and "love the one you're with," Riyo's no longer a stranger in a strange land, but a real Hawaiian.
What's wrong with "Picture Bride" -- beside its interminable length -- is that, except for one fire in the fields, it never gives a viewer a genuine feeling for how dangerous plantation work was and how exploited the Asian workers were. You see Riyo in the fields occasionally, but you're more likely to see her having heart-to-heart talks with Kana and with Matsuji or exploring mountain waterfalls and unspoiled beaches.
If you're really interested in a dramatic movie that explores the inequities of class and gender in the Far East, you should see the Chinese-made "The Wooden Man's Bride," which just ended a one-week run at the Charles (but may be brought back later this month). If you're thinking of vacationing in Hawaii, "Picture Bride" is for you.
Directed by Kayo Hatta
Starring Youki Kudoh, Akira Takayama and Tamilyn Tomita
Released by Miramax
PG-13 (brief nudity, sexual situations)