Remembering Kayo Hatta

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Shock is the only word to describe my feelings when fellow AsianWeek contributor Terry Hong passed on the news that Japanese American filmmaker Kayo Hatta had died of an accidental drowning on July 20.

I wasn’t particularly close to Kayo –– at best, we were social acquaintances. But every time I would see her, usually at some Asian American film event, she was always so full of energy and drive that it’s hard to believe she could be gone. She was one of those you just took for granted would be plugging away until a ripe old age.

I first met Kayo shortly before the release of Picture Bride, the film she directed and co-wrote in the 1990s. Kayo started it as a short while she was a film student at UCLA, but expanded it to feature-length to do full justice to the story of Japanese picture brides who immigrated to Hawai‘i in the early 20th century.

The film was moving, well-acted and beautifully photographed. It had the scope and feel of historical epics that cost one hundred times the money. It won numerous awards (including the Audience Award Prize at the Sundance festival), received rave reviews (SF Chronicle declared it “hypnotic” and “touching”) and was distributed by indie powerhouse Miramax. A promising filmmaker had arrived on the scene.

I was writing a profile on Tamlyn Tomita, one of the stars of Picture Bride, and met with Kayo about the piece.

The first thing I noticed was Kayo’s distinct voice. The only way I can describe it is what I imagine a homegirl from South Central who grew up in Hawai‘i would sound like — Lil’ Kim with a touch of pidgin. Her language was unapologetically direct and uninhibited. Kayo said about Tamlyn: “Oh, she’s so raunchy. She’s an L.A. homegirl” and I got the sense that coming from Kayo, that was the highest expression of respect and love.

Kayo praised Tamlyn’s work on the film and her un-diva-like behavior. She recalled her dearest image of Tamlyn in full costume chain smoking patiently under an umbrella in the rain and mud — waiting for the next shot without complaint. It was clear that this sort of fortitude and team spirit was most important to Kayo.

Then Kayo talked about how she had to make Picture Bride as a film to pay tribute to her ancestors, especially her grandmother, who though not a picture bride, had immigrated to Hawai‘i at around the time. She talked passionately about remembering our history and sharing with the current and future generations.

It was refreshing compared to the usual self-centered diatribes heard in these interview situations.

When I would see Kayo later, we would talk about mutual friends. She was always complimentary about other actors and filmmakers, not offering the usual apathetic well-wishes of Hollywood. She was always sincere. I remember talking to her when Better Luck Tomorrow hit, and her excitement and happiness for director Justin Lin, and how his cast/crew couldn’t have been greater if it were her own film.

Kayo turned to adapting the novel The Floating World. But amazingly, she faced disappointment after disappointment trying to get the project financed and going. Even after her success, very few were willing to take a chance on Asian or Asian American material.

But she never conveyed discouragement during the times we met. I had no doubt she would bring the book to the silver screen.

The story goes that when the great Hollywood director Ernst Lubitsch died, a fellow filmmaker remarked sadly, “I can’t believe it –– no more Lubitsch.” To which Billy Wilder (a marvelous director himself) added, “Worse — no more Lubitsch films.”

Hearing of Kayo’s death reminded me of that.

Philip W. Chung is a writer and co-artistic director of Lodestone Theatre Ensemble, an Asian American theatre company in L.A.

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