It's 1908, and a group of Japanese farmers set off for Brazil with the dream of making their fortune in the new world. In addition to heart-breaking problems of language, food and culture, and back-breaking work under filthy conditions, they find that they have been tricked into being indentured servants with self-perpetuating debts.

The milieu of "Gaijin" ("Foreigner") is fascinating. Brazil has a large Japanese population, and the film, the first of Tizuka Yamasaki, who based it on the experiences of her grandmother, also shows Italian, Spanish and black immigrants trying -- and failing -- to make a decent life on the beautiful but merciless coffee plantations. The actors, notably Kyoko Tsukamoto and Jiro Kawarasaki as strangers who marry to meet Brazil's requiremetn that immigrants arrive in family groups, exude poetic strength. And yet the film is made trivial, and occasionally silly, by false leads, phony dramatic devices and clinches from the nostalgia and common-humanity vocabularies. It has a slight plot, but that would have been enough had the richness of the background been allowed to remain uncluttered with irrelevancies.

The drama of their revulsion at the food, their alienation from other immigrants and even their deaths is never left alone. Something unnecessary is always done to heighten the effect.

To show that their customs set them apart, we see a Japanese terrorized by an Italian girl's jumping out at him naked. To show that they died of disappointment, as well as disease, we are treated to a hallucination scene -- screams of spotting the Sea of Japan in the distance -- before each of several death scenes.

The landowners are introduced as dramatic characters, with a hint of conflict between an heirness-wife and her inept husband, but they get in a carriage and ride off in mid-picture, never to be seen again. The chief Japanese couple are shown at a sexual impasse, but at the end they seem to have become a devoted couple without having let us know when or how. The Japanese community discusses the idea of raising, in their spare time, vegetables unknown in Brazil, leading us to expect triumphs of immigrant ingenuity; but they forget they ever mentioned it.

The film is basically made in Portuguese (shown with English subtitles), but has the policy of allowing each language represented be actually spoken -- that is, the Japanese speak Japanese, the English speak English, and so on. When an Italian laborer proposes solidarity with the Japanese, the Japanese hero says he doesn't understand -- supposedly meaning that he is refusing to entertain the idea. But as he is just learning Portuguese, and the Italian peppers his Portuguese with Italian phrases, the effect is unintentionally comic, another intrusion on what, if left simple, might have been a moving drama.

GAIJIN -- At the K-B Janus