Charting a young Japanese-American woman's struggles with family and cultural identity in the countercultural early 1970s, "Strawberry Fields" too often bungles its own intriguing potential. Muddled effort might attract select fests and pubcasters, but drama's unsatisfying handling will thwart wider play. Irene (Suzy Nakamura) is unhappy on all fronts --- her parents are evidently breaking up, her mother (Marilyn Tokuda) is severe and disapproving, and boyfriend Luke (James Sie) is frustrated by her sudden, surly mood changes. Irene has a tendency to "play" with matches. This echoes her grandfather's long-ago burning of family possessions before being forced into a WWII internment camp for citizens of Japanese heritage, though how Irene came to know about this --- her mother refuses to discuss the past --- is unclear.
When another pyro prank results in expulsion from school, Irene burns her mother’s remaining family photos, then runs away with Luke. On the road, the duo meet up with friends Aura (Reiko Mathieu) and Mark (Chris Tashima), political
activists who are on their way to San Francisco. Mark is secreting explosives for an unspecified “revolutionary” act.
After some spats, the two women leave their men behind and drive south, toward the site of their parents’ one-time internment camp. There they encounter an older Japanese-American woman still living in the area. A final pyrotechnic incident murkily provides Irene with cathartic acceptance of both distant familial history and the dead little sister (Heather Yoshimura) whose constant “ghostly” presence only she can perceive.
The early ’70s saw many Asian-American youths coalesce around shared cultural and political issues (particularly the internment-camp one, which most older survivors had preferred to “forget”). Irene’s conflicts could have illustrated that coming of age in powerful fashion. But the execution here is largely ineffectual and unfocused. Kerri Sakamoto’s screenplay renders Irene a more irksome than compellingly troubled protagonist, while other characters are superficially sketched. When scenes don’t dwell on irrelevant detail, they too often flounder in hackneyed dialogue (“You can’t face the truth!”).
Director Rea Tajiri, whose parents were interned during World War II, has helmed a documentary on that subject (“History and Memory: For Akiko and Takashige”). Here, she deploys quick-cut flashbacks in a quasi-experimental
mode, but the results seem more schematic than revealing.
Period ambiance, conveyed via retro fashions, decor and slang, is OK, if never fully convincing. While lensing is handsome at times, the opportunities missed in a couple of poorly handled hallucination scenes (on mushrooms and
acid) typify film’s inability to capitalize on the dramatic potential in both individual scenes and overall narrative. Performances and additional tech aspects are competent.
The Asian-American experience amid youthful tumult of the 1960s and ’70s remains a fresh subject for fiction features. “Strawberry Fields” is probably the first such exploration; one hopes better-realized attempts will follow in its wake.