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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Kayo Hatta, pioneering filmmaker

By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

Kayo Hatta died just as she was about to return to the spotlight. "She was a pioneer not just for local filmmakers, but for women in the industry," said Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, a star of "Picture Bride."

Diane Mark



A memorial service for Kayo Hatta will be at 1 p.m. Sunday at Mo'ili'ili Hongwanji Temple, 902 University Ave. In lieu of flowers, the family prefers donations to Asian Improv aRts, earmarked "Kayo Hatta Fund," and mailed to Asian Improv aRts, 201 Spear St., Suite 1650, San Francisco, CA 94104.
"Picture Bride," Kayo Hatta's 1993 feature-length film about plantation women in Hawai'i, won awards at Sundance and Cannes.

Advertiser library photo | 1999


Kayo Hatta, Honolulu-born independent filmmaker and writer/director of the Hawai'i-themed film "Picture Bride," died last week in an apparent drowning.

Her death Wednesday came just as she was preparing to return to the spotlight with a national broadcast on PBS and a long-awaited homecoming at the Hawai'i International Film Festival.

Hatta, who was 47, died in Encinitas, Calif. An autopsy was pending.

"It was the most awful time for this to happen," said Eleanor Nakama-Mitsunaga, who was an associate producer of Hatta's groundbreaking feature film "Picture Bride."

Hatta's new short film "Fishbowl," her first film project since "Picture Bride" in 1993, was released earlier this year and has received positive reviews at film festivals on the West Coast.

The film, based on Lois Ann Yamanaka's novel "Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers," will be broadcast nationally as part of the PBS "Independent Lens" series next spring. The first Hawai'i screening is scheduled for the Louis Vuitton Hawaii International Film Festival in October.

"She was so looking forward to coming home with that film," Nakama-Mitsunaga said.

Festival executive director Chuck Boller is in Sydney, Australia, and was not available for comment. Festival coordinator Trevor Tavares said he and the rest of the staff were saddened by the news, and arrangements are being discussed for a tribute to Hatta at the festival screening.

"I'll miss Kayo deeply as a creative comrade and as a dear friend," said "Picture Bride" producer Diane Mark. "But the loss is wider — the Asian-American community, the independent film community, and film audiences around the world have lost a great deal of richness with her passing."

Hatta was born in Honolulu and raised in Hawai'i and New York. She earned a bachelor's degree in English from Stanford University and a master's in film from UCLA.

Hatta began sketching out ideas for "Picture Bride," a dramatic look at plantation-era Hawai'i through the eyes of a young Japanese "picture bride," while at UCLA. But it would take her and her collaborators nearly a decade to bring the film to the big screen.

Hatta and her co-producers assembled a solid cast of seasoned professionals for the film, including Japanese film legend Toshio Mifune in his last role.

"The great thing about Kayo was that she had the kind of vision that takes a lot of guts for a local creative person to have," said Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, one of the film's stars. "She believed that you can make something happen without going to Hollywood ... Her vision was the reason I agreed to do the film.

"She was a pioneer not just for local filmmakers, but for women in the industry," Tagawa said. "She told a woman's story at a time when women are still struggling. To be a woman in this business and go out and achieve something like 'Picture Bride,' and to have that film be so well received by the rest of the world was a great thing."

One of the first independent films produced in Hawai'i — and the first to be written, produced and directed by an Asian-American woman, "Picture Bride" won the Audience Award for Best Dramatic Film at the 1995 Sundance Film Festival and was an Official Selection at the 1994 Cannes International Film Festival.

"She was one of the shining stars of the independent film world here," said Hawai'i state film commissioner Donne Dawson. "Losing Kayo is a big shock for everyone in the industry, especially given the (fame) of 'Picture Bride' and how it was an example of an independent feature that earned worldwide acclaim."

In recent years, Hatta had focused her efforts on educating young filmmakers in UCLA's School of Theater, Film and Television, the Art Institute of Los Angeles and other programs. She was co-producer of the Palestinian feature "The Olive Harvest" and the documentary "Hungry for Your Kisses."

"Fishbowl," which was partially financed by a grant from the Hawai'i Tourism Authority's Cultural Films Initiative (administered by the Hawai'i Film Office), premiered at the San Francisco International Film Festival in March.

Nakama-Mitsunaga spoke with Hatta about plans for "Fishbowl" just hours before Hatta died.

"Kayo never saw herself as a genius filmmaker," NakamaMitsunaga said. "She just saw herself as a person who had a strong passion for stories from Hawai'i. She went for it, and she kept at it no matter how many doors were slammed in her face."

Tagawa said he hopes the next generation of Hawai'i filmmakers will take Hatta's life and accomplishments as an inspiration.

"Kayo's vision wasn't about ego," he said. "She could have done 20 other films that would have been easier to make and would have been more acceptable to Hollywood, but she chose instead to honor us, to honor our ancestors and our culture.

"That was her vision."