After an awkward start, “The War Between Us” develops into an engrossing drama about Canada’s World War II policies toward Japanese-heritage citizens. Made for Canadian TV, pic could find modest theatrical berths offshore, but straightforward approach to historical issues of social justice looks most apt for international tube sales.
Writer Sharon Gibbon and director Anne Wheeler’s setup is crudely executed. The Kawashima clan of immigrant parents (owners of a successful Vancouver boating business) and their two native-born children are sketched in broad strokes as a middle-class Everyfamily — thus simplistically maximizing the shock when, exulting over their new automobile, they turn on the car radio to discover that all Japanese nationals must register with local authorities.
Soon after, Pearl Harbor is attacked. The quartet is hastily packed off to a small mining town in the British Columbia interior, thereby assuaging fears of “Jap” subterfuge on the presumably inva-sion-vulnerable coast. As nattily dressed, well-educated urbanites, the Kawashimas are quietly aghast at the primitive living conditions they’re expected to endure here — and the white populace is hardly thrilled, either, over this sudden onslaught of 400-plus “enemy” guests.
But jobs have been scarce of late, so the locals reluctantly accept their lot , along with the government-sponsored funding it brings. Both sides have prejudices to overcome. The Japanese visitors fear they’ve been left to rot among rubes, though they’re too polite to say so. Many locals are far less circumspect in voicing predictable racist sentiments. In time, though, forced co-existence softens most — though not all — hearts.
The story focuses largely on young adult Aya (Mieko Ouchi), who takes up a job as housekeeper for next-door neighbors Peg (Shannon Lawson) and Ed Parnham (Robert Wisden) and their two daughters. More skittish than her fairly open-minded husband, Peg at first treats Aya as a servant. By the bittersweet end, however, their friendship anchors the film.
Smartly paced, pic packs a lot of story into its progress, including a budding romance between the two families’ teen offspring (Edmond Kato, Juno Ruddell), development of cross-cultural business concerns and ever-worsening legal treatment of the Japanese-Canadians (as decreed at regular intervals by an insensitive bureaucrat). Aya, too, finds tentative romance with another young internee. But her hopes are dashed, and the elder Kawashimas’ faith destroyed, when they discover the government has “appropriated” their abandoned Vancouver home and business for sale — despite Kawashima’s World War I service in the Canadian armed forces.
A spoken epilogue (curiously buried in sound mix) gives us the final irony: No Japanese-Canadians were ever charged with treason or acts of disloyalty.
Early ham-fistedness surfaces again, albeit less painfully, when sobering later events provoke a suicide and various teary interludes. When pic goes for straight-up melodrama, dialogue, direction and acting lose any nuance. But filmmakers do well with the more subtle, yet plain-spoken, currents of fear turning to understanding that occupy most of pic’s screen time. We become quite involved in these characters, as does the capable and appealing cast.
Production values are good, with some handsome outdoor lensing and particularly attractive period costume designs.