The year is 1971. The setting is a high school classroom in Chicago. A discussion of Lieutenant Calley's Mei Lei massacre rips the classroom apart in passionate argument. Everyone agrees that the commanding officer, Calley, is a scapegoat. His massacre of innocent Vietnamese villagers is a crime against humanity; but, the question is: For whom is the infamous lieutenant a patsy? The question goes unanswered. One is supposed to feel the tension of information withheld. It's one of the central scenes in Rea Tajiri's Strawberry Fields.
The object of the classroom debate scene is to draw the viewer into sympathetic engagement with the movie's heroine, equating the shame of one American tragedy with another historical event: the internment of Japanese-American citizens at Poston during World War II. Unlike the Mei Lei massacre, however, whose victims are dead, the survivors of the Poston imprisonment carry unresolved emotional scars which haunt them to this day. In the classroom debate scene, for example, Calley's strongest defender is an Asian-American student, who says, callously, "A gook's a gook." It's as if a Native American were to say, like General Sherman, "the only good Indian is a dead Indian." The central character of Strawberry Fields, Irene Kawai, suffers from the same sort of introjected, race-based contempt, which takes the outer form of perversion and obsessional neurosis. She is a pyromaniac with a schizophrenic personality. She hates herself; but, Why?
The entire action of Strawberry Fields revolves around an attempt to answer this question, and to find some sort of resolution. The answer lies, of course, in the Strawberry Fields of the Poston camp, where Irene's grandfather burned, out of shame, everything of sentimental value which represented his Japanese heritage. The internalized shame has been handed down from generation to generation, leaving it up to the heroine, Irene, to confront the demons of the past. It's an inherently interesting problem, full of drama, urgency, and mission. Strawberry Fields has noble intentions. The themes it addresses are important, timely, socially and historically relevant, full of social and psychological depth, and germane; but, the film doesn't work. If I could compare it to a musical performance, I would say that it is something akin to a grad student recital: It is technically correct, but devoid of emotion. It lacks creative spontaneity, vigor, and heart. It's more of an analytical study than a work of art.
Suzy Nakamura, for example, who plays Irene -- a woman supposedly consumed by rage -- seems to have studied the outward appearance of anger, but not its internal dynamics. She may be personally acquainted with the emotion; but, in front of the camera, one would never know it. Her performance is, to be blunt, amateurish.
Worse than that, the story line is unconvincing and, at times, cliché. It is a series of disconnected vignettes which are supposed to represent the disjointed and internally fractured state of mind of Irene; but, they obfuscate more than they illuminate. Why, for example, does Irene, high on acid, pull out a gun and shoot a mirror? Why does she have shave cream all over her face? Where did she get the gun? Why does she agree to travel to California with her boyfriend, after telling him, in a sudden paroxysm of feigned rage, "You don't know s*** - all you want to do is screw me!" Why does Mark have a case of dynamite, which Irene steals?
The movie doesn't need the road and acid trip scenes, which have been done over and over again, starting with Easy Rider. It adds nothing to the hero's journey, except as pulp. Again, one wonders if the main characters ever experienced LSD firsthand.
Given its high ambitions, Strawberry Fields is a disappointment. It is a surface, intellectual treatment of mysterious and hidden social and psychological forces. It fails to evoke sympathy for the main character. Ironically, it struck me as insulting to Japanese-Americans by presenting the most obvious Asian stereotype of all: a slavishly other-directed culture that lacks the internal resources to confront an oppressive society. Which makes me wonder: Whose shame is it, anyway?
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