January 28, 1991 12:00 PM

Dennis Quaid, Tamlyn Tomita

Stuff the gangster potboilers. Here is a film about an American subculture that is full of passion, tension, ambition and despair but gives its audience credit for being able to deal with conflicts more complicated (and profound) than who’s shooting whom.

Quaid plays a movie projectionist who ends up in Los Angeles in 1936, where he falls in love with Tomita (The Karate Kid Part II), daughter of a traditional Japanese family, Their romance is first opposed by Tomita’s father, who has arranged a marriage for her; when World War II begins, Quaid and Tomita’s lives are disrupted by the U.S. policy of interning people of Japanese descent in “camps.” (The film is based on a real policy reversed in 1944.)

Director-writer Alan (Mississippi Burning) Parker handles his emotion-laden subject with dexterity and respect for nuance. He never makes either the government policy or its practitioners seem outrageously unreasonable, alluding to the fear and confusion following Pearl Harbor.

Yet Parker also makes the shock and disillusionment of the Japanese internees—particularly those born in the United States, who thought of themselves as totally American—heartbreaking. Tomita’s baseball-loving brother, newcomer Stan Egi, is stunned when Japanese are classified as “enemy aliens” and asks, “Is Joe DiMaggio an enemy alien, for chrissakes?”

While Quaid is solid as usual, he seems like a conduit into the story for non-Japanese Americans. The deeper emotion lies in Tomita’s family. Egi, changing from California boy into Japanese sympathizer, is memorable, but the real power lies in Sab (Presumed Innocent) Shimono, as Tomita’s father, and Shizuko (The Wash) Hoshi, as her mother. Shimono, who was born in California and spent three years in a World War II camp, infuses his role of impotent patriarch with an aura of tragedy. The Japan-born Hoshi makes evident the pain of being caught in events beyond her control.

At times Parker overreaches. “You’re so full of rage, [your wife] got sick of it and stopped dreaming.” Quaid’s sister-in-law tells him. But he usually keeps control of a volatile story that could have spun off into a drama of recrimination. This is that rare movie that makes you angry and sad and still adds to your understanding. (R)

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