In the early part of the 20th century, many young Asian women moved to Hawaii to have arranged marriages with men they only knew from a single picture. These women became known as Picture Brides due to the advancement of photography which now allowed for these far flung arranged marriages. This 1994 film of the same name purports to tell their stories, but unfortunately director Kayo Hatta's sole film credit doesn't come close to doing them justice.
It focuses mainly on young teenage Riyo who leaves Japan and a secret shame behind her as she travels to meet her new husband. All she has is a picture of a young handsome man, but on the other end she meets a much older gentleman who admits that he only had a very old picture of himself to send. She feels not only cheated by this, but totally out of her element since she is a city girl not used to the hard work of the sugar cane fields where she will now live. Despondent over her living conditions (her husband Matsuji tells her to be happy with their ramshackle cabin because "over in the worker's camp, everyone is crowded together"), her working conditions and her husband, she vows to save enough money to travel back to Japan as soon as possible. She soon learns this is not an easy task though. She begins collecting additional money through laundry work via her new friend Kana - a young mother with a more cynical beaten down view of life in Hawaii - but still starts to lose hope. It's a sad story and there were likely thousands of similar tragedies and young lives wasted during this period. It's a shame that a better film about their experiences couldn't have been made.
It's not that this is a poorly made film, but it's just so bland (I almost said pedestrian). There's very little of note to take away from the story except for the general knowledge that many Asian women were sold off as wives to people they had never met. For what could be a fascinating story, this ends up being nothing you haven't seen many times before - stock situations, scenes and story arc. Riyo resists her situation, begins to fit in and develop relationships, starts to learn about her husband, is set back due to tragedy, etc. The filmmakers bring nothing interesting to the telling of the story either. There's no artful methods at play here, just plain exposition and dialogue. Also problematic is the fact that the film was likely made with North American audiences in mind, so a good chunk of the characters' spoken lines are done in English (since the characters want to learn that language in order that they can get further along). But this brings to a halt any flow in the back and forth dialogue of the characters. For example when Matsuji complains to Kana that Riyo only thinks about his age, the advice he gets is "Make romantic. Like movies. Rudolph Valentino."
Youki Kudoh is actually quite charming as the lovely young bride, but the whole story lacks any real emotional pull (note: gentle acoustic guitar music added on the soundtrack does NOT bring emotion to your story). We don't get to spend quality time with the characters or really feel what their lives were like. There are moments such as Matsuji showing restraint when he obviously wants to force himself on his wife, a brief visit by traveling entertainers who bring some samurai films with them to the village and some lovely shots of the sugar cane fields at different points of the day. But none of this adds up to a very compelling viewing experience.