"Gaijin," an earnest shlepper from Brazil, uncovers a potentially fascinating chapoter of immigrant history but lacks the skill and imagination necessary to make a dramatic consequence out of the discovery.

Opening today at the K-B Janus, the film was directed by Tizuka Yamasaki, a young Brazilian of Japanese ancestry. Her awkward, unresolved scenario was inspired by the experience of a grandmother who arrived in Brazil in 1908. She came ona wave of immigration that lured peasants from several countries to thankless labor on the coffee plantations, and she remained to become a progenitor of an exotic, ethnic minority, now numbering about a million, according to the filmmaker.

Yamasaki engaged her grandmother as a technical adviser on this first feature shot on a fairly pinched budget. But a writing consultant such as James Michener, the benevolent specialist in fictional sagas about heroic settlers, would have been more useful. Mamasaki's inability to shape her material coherently undermines some natural advantages. Her particular ethnic identity is probably a new one on most of us, yet the story outline recalls a familiar, stirring theme: the survival of immigrant groups despite culture shock, proverty, disease and exploitation. Yet "Gaijin" breaks down for want of an effectived storyteller.

The title is evidently a colloquialism meaning "foreigner" or "outsider." The heroine, Titoe, played by Kyoko Tsukamoto as a shrinking violet of incorrigible droopiness, joins a party of immigrants when betrothed to a friend of her brother's. Still in her teens, she takes sorrowful leave of home to encounter a strange land as the bride of a stranger.

One of Yamasaki's fundamental problems is an inability to differentiate characters. The scenes are often so sketchy and the continuity so slack that you remain confused and unprepared for climactic events.

The marriage of Titoe and Yamada, played by Jiro Kawarasaki, is largely a record of her shying away from his frustrated passion. While this shyness may be understandable, it's never transcended after Yamada finally succeeds in consummating the marriage. At the same time, Titoe never forms revealing friendships or trades impressions with the other women in her situation.

Although Yamanda appears to be the natural leader of the struggling Japanese contingent, the filmmaker acts more intrigued by a moony Brazilian, Tonho (Antonio Fagundes), who keeps accounts (crooked accounts, too) for the plantation, wants to be cordial to the exploited help and nurses an infatuation with Titoe. Curiously, Tonho seems to be regarded as more of a catch and soulmate for the heroine, who is evidently on the verge of reciprocating his affection as the scenario staggers to a rushed, inconclusive fadeout.

Perhaps the filmmaker has imposed an assimilated romantic misconception of her own on Titoe. Given the social and dramatic circumstances in which the girl finds herself, this preference is baffling. Yamanda would appear to be not only the more appropriate mate but also the braver, stronger man.

At any rate, matters of dramatic significance have a way of eluding the director. Endeavoring to express Titoe's nostalgia for Japan, Yamasaki inserts images too vague to generate evocative power -- a scene of village matrons in a ceremonial procession that suggests nothing so much to an outsider as an impromptu chorus line. In a similar respect, an immigrant wife driven to madness and suicide has no standing as a character when she's instructed to flip out. She needs to count for something in the expository stages before her suffering can be expected to make an essential impact.

At best, "Gaijin" may arouse your curiosity about an unknown aspect of the oft-told immigrant epic. Yamasaki may enjoy unique access to this material, but she isn't prepared to transpose it effectively to the screen.