• Share
  • Read Later


Two weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, TIME ran a story called "How to Tell Your Friends from the Japs," which itemized physical and personality traits of the Japanese and Chinese. The Japanese "laugh loudly at the wrong time," the piece revealed. "The Chinese expression is likely to be more placid, kindly, open; the Japanese more positive, dogmatic, arrogant."

Racism was codified in wartime America; around 110,000 Japanese Americans were stripped of their property and shipped to camps, where they were held until late 1945. "It's like burning down Chicago to get rid of the gangsters," notes one character in this drama about Lily, a young Japanese woman (Tamlyn Tomita), and her family, interned for years though they are guilty of nothing, not even laughing loudly.

Alan Parker, a political cartoonist among writer-directors, draws every noble sentiment with broad strokes; his style is an anvil hitting an easel. He also introduces an irrelevant American, Lily's husband (Dennis Quaid), who becomes a kind of noble victim by marriage. But the movie is a splendid showcase for Japanese-American actors, and it provides a history lesson that is no less valuable for being obvious.


Mrs. Flax (Cher) is instantly recognizable as a lovable eccentric, movie- style. If her wardrobe (hand-me-down Stella Dallas) didn't give her away, the fact that no one, including her children, ever calls her anything but "Mrs. Flax" would. The kids are cut from the same Day-Glo emotional fabric. The younger (an adorable Christina Ricci) regularly tries to break the world's record for holding one's breath under water. The older (a luminous Winona Ryder) reveres nuns and earnestly studies the lives of the saints, a curious passion for a '60s adolescent, all the more so in her case because she's Jewish.

As a character seeking redemption for purely imaginary sins, Ryder comes close to redeeming this agreeably feckless movie by director Richard Benjamin and screenwriter June Roberts. She is in touch with some hormonal reality, some temporary teenage insanity (sad, funny, scary, all at once) that the rest of the film, caught up in the desire to make us say "aww" instead of making us go "argh," cannot approach. The movie must drive the Flaxes sane, and once its instrument for doing so, a sensible shoe-store owner named Lou Landsky (Bob Hoskins), begins to court the missus, Mermaids abandons the tumultuous seas Ryder wants to ply and starts flopping its way to a shallow pond of easy sentiment.