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Love for Sale

When 16-year-old mail-order bride Riyo (Youki Kudoh) gets off the boat that has borne her from her old home in Japan to her new one on a sugar cane plantation in Hawaii, she is shocked by the sight of her spouse-to-be. She expected that the man who paid for her passage would look at least something like the photo he sent her family -- young, hard-eyed and broodingly handsome. Instead, Matsuji (Akira Takayama) is a middle-aged man with a crinkly face and the slumped posture of a farm hand who's spent too many years in the fields. Almost as bad, Riyo discovers that the gorgeous pastoral home Matsuji promised in his letters to Japan is little more than a sharecropper's hovel.

Riyo is so outraged that she doesn't realize Matsuji is as disappointed in her as she is in him. Matsuji went about landing his new bride in a fairly dishonest fashion, to be sure, but Riyo's guardians weren't exactly straight with him, either. He was led to anticipate a robust young farm woman who could slave away in the sugar cane for hours without a break, as Matsuji had done since arriving from Japan two decades ago. But the wide-eyed apparition he sees couldn't have sprung from rural stock. She's a slender city girl with doe eyes, small hands and delicate sensibilities -- skittish, spoiled and easily driven to pouting.

This is the setup of Picture Bride, an engaging film that stands proudly among this year's hardy crop of immigrant stories -- a crop that has already yielded such satisfying melodramas as My Family and The Perez Family. This sort of movie works only if its characters are quirky and sympathetic, its surroundings are fresh and intriguing and its makers are willing to stress genuine human emotion over plot contrivance. Fortunately, although the director of Picture Bride, Japanese-American filmmaker Kayo Hatta (who co-wrote the screenplay with her sister, Mari Hatta), has a fine eye for compositions and a good sense of how to create a thick, rich, almost tactile sense of atmosphere, she's never arty or pretentious. She loves actors, and she knows how to give them room to move and breathe.

Although the lush Hawaiian settings seem to promise a movie of old-fashioned sweep and love-conquers-all philosophizing, Hatta instead constructs a tale that delivers the opposite: under her steady directorial gaze, Hawaii's tropical forests, wind-swept coasts, misty mountains and mazelike fields of sugar cane are presented as formidable challenges to her workaday characters -- an unforgiving land that extracts a terrible toll on those who work it. A fire in the fields is staged with some of the same Old Testament fury as the plague of locusts in Terence Malick's 1978 Panhandle melodrama Days of Heaven. Even when the landscape is sunlit and still, it often seems more threatening than alluring.

The social structures that surround Hatta's people are equally forbidding. The sugar cane industry operates through a castelike system in which established immigrants are allowed more authority by their colleagues than new arrivals. And the closer a character is to the illusion of whiteness, the more respect he is afforded by plantation owners; Portuguese occupy a higher position on the ladder than Japanese, Australians have more clout than Portuguese, and so forth. The Asian field hands on the bottom of this socioeconomic ladder get the worst of it; like the beleaguered coal miners of John Sayles' Matewan, they work punishingly long days for meager wages, and their pay is docked by the landowner for food, rent, clothing and equipment, which means they're living only a hair's breadth away from slavery. (There are brief respites from this grind, though. One of the most amusing showcases legendary Japanese screen star Toshiro Mifune in a cameo as an elderly visiting Benshi -- a crowd-pleasing storyteller.) Poor Riyo plots to save her money to return home, but is crushed to realize she could work ten lifetimes and still not be able to afford safe passage to Japan.

This life is hard on everybody -- especially Riyo's best friend, a spunky field hand named Kana (the strikingly beautiful Tamlyn Tomita, superb in The Joy Luck Club, and equally good here). Kana helps Riyo get closer to her goal of returning home by teaching her how to be a laundress, which pays better than field work. She gives Riyo emotional support, too, listening to Riyo's tales of domestic woe and countering them with stories of her own. Kana has watched as her once-sweet husband, Kanzaki (rakishly handsome Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), was worn down by life into an abusive, drunken lout. Kana's determination to convince Riyo to seek out her new husband's love has a hidden, vicarious motive; in a sense, Kana is living her failed dreams of domestic bliss through Riyo, hoping the younger woman's happiness can rub off on her.

Despite its attention to hardship, Picture Bride isn't a downer. Director Hatta finds humor in situations of extreme disappointment, and she hangs back with her camera, letting the actors tease out the script's emotions without italicizing everything through needless close-ups. And there's something wonderfully old movie-ish about Youki Kudoh, a fine-boned young actress best known to American audiences as the Elvis-obsessed Japanese exchange student in Mystery Train. Although Riyo inevitably flowers from a peevish girl into a sensible woman, the character always has a daft, childlike aura.

She's an innocent abroad, and part of what makes the movie charming is her inability to process what happens to her. Like her husband, Riyo takes life one day at a time; rather than admit defeat and embrace unhappiness, she simply revises her expectations of life so that they match what fate has dealt her. Together, Riyo and Matsuji form the core of a modestly wrought, very unusual romance. The message is that bliss isn't found: it's made.

Picture Bride.
Directed by Kayo Hatta. With Youki Kudoh, Akira Takayama, Tamlyn Tomita, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa and Toshiro Mifune.

Rated PG.
89 minutes.

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