Woman Director Captures Mail-Order Brides' Story

Female directors are rare in the movie world, and Asian-American directors are rarer still, given the difficulties of challenging the white-male establishment that has dominated filmmaking since its earliest days.

But this hasn't stopped Kayo Hatta from making her voice heard. Born in Hawaii to Japanese-American parents, she studied filmmaking in Los Angeles and started her own Honolulu production company, Thousand Cranes Filmworks, about six years ago. Her first feature-length movie, ''Picture Bride,'' earned praise at last year's Cannes International Film Festival and went on to win the Audience Award at this year's Sundance filmfest.

Now it's headed for theaters -- courtesy of Miramax Films, which helped finance it -- and if ticket buyers share the enthusiasm shown by festival crowds, Hatta's name will soon be familiar to moviegoers everywhere. Although it was made on a modest budget, ''Picture Bride'' includes a performance by top Japanese star Toshiro Mifune and appearances by Tamlyn Tomita and Cary Tagawa, known from such movies as ''The Joy Luck Club'' and ''Rising Sun.''

The title ''Picture Bride'' refers to the thousands of Japanese and Korean women who became mail-order wives for contract laborers on Hawaii's sugar-cane plantations during the first quarter of this century. The film combines an unflinching look at their difficult living conditions with sympathy for their hardships and recognition of the psychological complexities that marked their hard-working, multicultural society.

Hatta based the movie on interviews she conducted with a small number of Japanese picture brides who were still living when she started work on the film.

''A lot of the incidents are based on things that actually happened,'' she told me during the Cannes filmfest. ''The story is kind of a mixture. We composited the different interviews we did into one character. To make it feel like a real person, I wanted her to be based on my grandmother -- in her personality and the way she acted, being stubborn and willful a lot of the time.''

Hatta's interest in the past -- shared with her sister Mari Hatta, who collaborated on the screenplay -- grew from her fascination with stories she heard years ago from her grandmothers. ''I did a little Super-8 documentary about [my grandmothers] when I was first getting into film,'' she says, ''and this movie is an outgrowth of that.'' Her research into picture brides started when she read about a folklorist who had traveled the islands of Hawaii recording work songs sung by women in their 80s and 90s.

''By then a lot of men were singing them too,'' Hatta says, ''but originally they were all sung by women. He sent them to me, and a lot of them were so raunchy. You're not used to hearing immigrant women being bawdy and talking about sex ... but these women did. Maybe it's from the intimacy of working with other women in the fields and away from the men, so they had a locker-room mentality.

''But that's only one part of it,'' she adds. ''The other part is how poignant their songs were -- about how hard life was, and what they were going through. They had a lot of pathos.''

Hatta then returned to Hawaii and started her own research, listening to oral histories compiled by local historians. These scholars then introduced her to surviving picture brides.

''After some initial shyness,'' Hatta recalls, ''they were willing to open up the intimate details of their lives. They told me about the early loneliness they felt, the difficulty of intimacy with their husbands, the need to go out to the cane fields for privacy because they were so crowded together.''

Once her research was finished, Hatta faced the task of filming on Hawaiian locations. ''The conditions were really hard,'' she recalls. ''We chose summer because we thought it would be dry, and it turned out to be the rainiest summer season in Hawaii's history. The mud in the cane fields! And the way the light kept changing.''

Another challenge was to balance the film's main story -- about a young picture bride building a life with a new husband in a new land -- with an honest portrayal of social conditions. While this meant showing the oppressive practices of employers and overseers, Hatta didn't want melodramatic subplots to take over the movie.

''At one point I had a big whipping scene when one of the Filipino workers is beaten,'' she notes. ''But it was so Simon Legree, so over the top, that it took the focus away from the intimacy. I really wanted [the film] to be about the subtle awakening of the girl -- coming to terms with the death of her parents and the ghost of her past, and finding family with someone who's a virtual stranger.

''I could have made it a lot more dramatic, I guess, but for me the main thing was to develop the love story and its nuances. I don't think evil has to be conveyed in an in-your-face way.''

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