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Snow Falling on Cedars

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Snow Falling on Cedars

Starring: Ethan Hawke, James Cromwell
Director: Scott Hicks
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 126 Minutes
Release Date: December 1999
Genres: Drama, Suspense

*Also starring: Richard Jenkins, James Rebhorn, Sam Shepard, Zeljko Ivanek, Eric Thal, Max von Sydow, Youki Kudoh, Rick Yune

Review by Mark OHara
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The opening shot of SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS shows a white miasma: it's hard to tell if we are in a dream sequence, underwater, or in a thick fog. It turns out to be the fog, and we see many other striking shots filmed in the same artful and patient manner. The film is beautifully photographed by cinematographer Robert Richardson: in fact, the imagery, along with the roundabout storytelling by director Scott Hicks, helps to make a rather ordinary story into a very appealing one.

The order of Hicks's narrative is all out of whack; it's on purpose, of course, as Hicks takes chances with flashbacks and brief memories. One advantage is that we escape a long, uninterrupted courtroom scene: instead, we are able to watch segments blended well with the background tales that led to the trial. A second plus is discovering the motivations of various characters, the timing acting most of the time as an engaging surprise.

The action takes place in the fictional county of San Piedro, on an island off Washington state, between the years 1941 and 1951. A Japanese-American fisherman, Kazuo Miyamoto (Rick Yune), is on trial for the murder of a fellow fisherman. Kazuo has an ancient but brilliant defense lawyer, Nels Gudmundsson (Max Von Sydow); the other side however, has a cagey prosecutor, Alvin Hooks (James Rebhouse), as well as the collective prejudice of the jury and white community. Who will prevail? The trial ends up occupying our interest less than the stories that engendered it.

Up in the courtroom balcony the editor of the "Island Review" newspaper, Ishmael Chambers (Ethan Hawke), is observing the trial. Even more closely, he observes Kazuo's wife Hatsue. A backstory shows us how they grew up together, fell in love, and separated tragically. Again, prejudice results in family and community rejecting any type of mixed marriage; the theme carries farther with the internment of Japanese-Americans in camps for the duration of the Second World War.

Some of the most affecting scenes in the film show these citizens, many of them residents of the area for years, uprooted and loaded into army trucks bound for California. A drumbeat with spare accompaniment plays as these people leave their lives and belongings, and march into an exile imposed by the United States government. Hatsue has refused Ishmael's proposal of marriage, and leaves with her family. In shots used in the movie trailer, we see Ishmael's face in a car window, Hatsue's reflected from the outside. They are separated.

Clearly his love for Hatsue has consumed much of his attention, turning into an obsession. The plot gains some complication from Ishmael's stumbling upon evidence important to the trial. It's here that the plausibility weakens, as the situation dictates that Ishmael must have adequate motivation for withholding material that could exonerate a man of a murder charge. Ethan Hawke has never struck me as an actor who could play vindictive: all the more reason why the script, by Hicks and veteran screenwriter Ron Bass, should give his character stronger incentive to think about behavior so drastic.

Hawke is fine in all other scenes, wistful and pensive and lovesick. Ishmael's parents, Arthur and Helen, are portrayed by Sam Shepard and Caroline Kava, and they supply very strong support. Arthur Chambers is the newspaperman with integrity, refusing to back down when townspeople cancel their ads and subscriptions, and deliver telephone threats, because they hate the editor's support of the Japanese-American community. Shepard sports thin wire-rimmed spectacles, giving him a wise and avuncular look. In the film's later time setting, 1951, Arthur is dead and Ishmael's mother takes a bigger role. As a matter of fact, she is aware of her son's preoccupation with Hatsue, and tells him what he must ultimately do: Forget her, she's a married woman.

Max Von Sydow delivers a deceptively simple performance. Though he makes his role seem effortless, one can imagine the thought the actor put into his speech and body language. As I watched him I could not help but think: what if the casting director and Hicks had switched the actors playing the lawyers? What could Von Sydow have done in the role of the prosecutor trying to convict the hapless fisherman? James Rebhorn, after all, was typecast as this slightly slippery, pencil-mustache-wearing attorney.

As the object of Ishmael's love, Youki Kudoh plays Hatsue with a nice understatement. Here the script helps in clarifying the way a woman of Japanese descent must act: "You wouldn't understand," a young Hatsue tells a teenage Ishmael. Kudoh often appears wide-eyed and stunned, but this expression is usually part of the cultural mores that dictated her behaviors.

Between sequences of non-linear narration, the visual storytelling is often inspired. True to the title, snow falls on tall, shred-barked cedars, as well as on a breathtaking and rugged countryside. The set is also decorated with countless vintage vehicles. But the most striking visuals include strangely beautiful underwater images: the drowned fisherman sinking, the soupy fog, even Ishmael in full combat gear floating downward in his attempt to participate in an assault on an enemy beach. To an extent, most of the main characters seem at some point to be suffocating, oppressed by the closeness of ignorance and hate and injustice. Whereas what we see often inspires awe, the filmmakers went out their way to simulate a period mood by using sepia-tinted film throughout much of the story. In many scenes this aura of brown grew distracting: why not just use black and white, or a miz of color and non-color, instead of a fake tinge of age?

The film is rated PG-13 for one instance of strong language, love-making scenes, and images of battle carnage and corpses. Parents would feel comfortable taking most 12 year-olds to view with them.

Copyright 1999 Mark OHara

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