"Come See the Paradise," Alan Parker's romantic look at the "relocation" of Japanese Americans during World War II, has the feel of a still life. A placid, well-nigh-elegiac portrait of the Kawamuras of L.A.'s Little Tokyo, it is a history told by 19-year-old Lily, an apple pie nisei with the most compelling almond eyes. Like Lily and her family, the film itself suffers from divided sympathies, the brash can-do of the West versus a quieter Eastern resilience.
Tamlyn Tomita, born in Okinawa and raised in Los Angeles, has the role of Lily, a young woman as graceful and purely stunning as her namesake. It is 1936 and Lily, the eldest of the six American-born Kawamura kids, is being pressured to marry a rich old Japanese widower to whom her gambler father is greatly indebted. Then along comes Dennis Quaid as Jack McGurn, a dashing Irish American who comes to Los Angeles to escape his past as a militant union organizer in New York. A projectionist by trade, Jack takes a job at a Japanese cinema owned by Lily's father (Sab Shimono) and managed by her easygoing, baseball-loving brother, Charlie (Stan Egi).
For Lily and Jack, it is love at first sight. However, their sweet, rather chaste romance is opposed not only by Mr. Kawamura but by the State of California, which forbids intermarriage. The lovers elope to Seattle, where Jack takes a factory job and Lily gives birth to their daughter, Mini. Their happiness ends when the militant Jack resumes his union activities against her wishes, and Lily feels forced to leave for L.A. with Mini on Pearl Harbor eve. Back home, Lily learns that her father is being held by the FBI for his involvement in Japanese cultural societies -- he brought Japanese plays to the United States. "Don't forget the crummy movies. They're dangerous weapons. They could bore us to death," says Charlie.
Even when government agents are searching the house, even when the family is traveling to the internment camps, even behind barbed wire in the dusty barracks themselves, the Kawamuras are as American as Campbell Soup Kids. A hard-working, optimistic lot, they are soon planting trees and holding beauty contests. Eventually stress and rage send the two older Kawamura sons -- Charlie and Harry (Ronald Yamamoto) -- their separate ways and the family is torn apart. In the meantime, Jack, who doesn't know where his family has been imprisoned, is drafted but refuses to give up his search for Lily and Mini. Will they ever see each other again? Will the noble Mrs. Kawamura (Shizuko Hoshi) ever see Mr. Kawamura again?
The movie, both written and directed by Parker, is as melodramatic as "Gone With the Wind" but not nearly as good at giving us perspective on relationships sundered and sometimes sealed by war. The British director -- who is forever poking his nose into our affairs -- is extremely respectful of the Japanese American people. Perhaps he has responded all too well to the charges of racist revisionism leveled at his 1988 film, "Mississippi Burning," in which the FBI came to the rescue of the civil rights movement. The FBI comes off as the bad guys here, but it's still a fairly timid assessment of the events of the period.
Though it features uniformly solid performances, "Come See the Paradise" misses a dynamo like Gene Hackman's tough cop in "Mississippi Burning." Quaid is endearing as the self-deprecating Jack, but he's not crackling with his customary sexual energy. But then "Come See the Paradise" isn't driven by anything more dramatic than the perseverance of its cast. Everything that happens -- whether the death of a loved one or the upsetting of a cart of cabbages -- gets equal dramatic weight here. But as fate would have it, the movie does gain emotional resonance by the coincidence of its wartime release date.
Come See the Paradise, at area theaters, is rated R for sensuality.