When we first meet Riyo (Youki Kudoh) in Tokyo, circa 1918, she is a shy 16-year-old orphan, and she's beginning to weaken to her aunt's urging that she allow the local matchmaker to find her a good husband.
Riyo is still wary when the matchmaker comes up with Matsuji (Akira Takayama), a Japanese man toiling in Hawaii's sugar cane fields. She's not crazy about the prospect of being a mail-order bride but begins to give in when she sees a photograph of the handsome, young prospective husband and reads his gentle letters and romantic haiku.
Still feeling trepidation, Riyo sails for Hawaii with other "picture brides," only to be profoundly disappointed when she discovers that Matsuji (Akira Takayama) is about 20 years older than his picture, and the years of hard labor in the fields are evident in his features, and his living conditions are less than luxurious.
Riyo's first instinct is to run away, to sail back home. Then, ironically, she finds that Matsuji is also disappointed he wanted someone tougher and stronger than this seemingly spoiled city girl. Riyo accepts the challenge, only to discover that Hawaii can be as harsh as it is lush. And she still saves her money to sail back to Japan, keeping her distance from Matsuji.
"Picture Bride" is the story of how this unlikely couple comes together, gets together and stays together, despite circumstances that continually put the success of their union in doubt. And while there's little question that co-writer/director Kayo Hatta has romanticized the material and relies on movie conventions for much of the plot, the characters are disarming and the film itself is quite engrossing.
Structured as an episodic tale, "Picture Bride" unfolds a bit like a puzzle. There are many pieces of many different shapes and sizes, and how they will all eventually fit together is interpretive much of the way.
Hatta's direction is unsure in places, and there are moments of awkwardness that give away the fact that this is a first-time, low-budget filmmaking effort.
On the other hand, she has a knack for allowing background color and seemingly minor subplots to offer insight in and around the central story. Hatta is strongest with quiet, reflective scenes, which provide some of the film's most enjoyable moments.
The low-key performances by Kudoh and Takayama are excellent, though Tamlyn Tomita tends to steal the show as Riyo's spirited best friend. And it's certainly a pleasure to see legendary Japanese superstar Toshiro Mifune, who shows up in a cameo as the narrator of a traveling silent-movie show. (The gorgeous cinematography by Claudio Rocha should also be noted.)
"Picture Bride" is a real crowd-pleaser, and it's easy to see why it won the Audience Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival.
The film is rated PG-13 for violence, sex, brief nudity and vulgarity.