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Snow Falling on Cedars

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All-Reviews.com 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 Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

When O.J. Simpson was found not guilty of murdering his ex-wife and her friend, critics of the jury system and of lawyers' tactics were quick to pounce on the verdict. Given the racial makeup of the jury and the defense team's alleged playing of the race card, cynics and detractors in general were quick to say that the decision was based not on the evidence but on the willingness of minority jurors to free an African-American simply because of his race. What we all know, though, is that the situation has almost always been the reverse: jurors have been quick to find innocent people guilty if the defendants were members of minority groups. During this film-packed Christmas period, moviegoers have been treated to a story depicting a flagrant case of such injustice by taking in Universal Studios' "The Hurricane," in which Denzel Washington plays a prizefighter unjustly found guilty of a murder and warehoused for a couple of decades because of racial prejudice. High-school students are still assigned "To Kill a Mockingbird" in sophomore English class, Harper Lee's powerful tale of a Southern lawyer who defends a black man accused of rape. (Kids lucky enough to catch a revival of Robert Mulligan's 1962 movie starring Gregory Peck and introducing Robert Duvall could get by without reading the book.)

Now, David Guterson's multi-layered, PEN/Faulkner prize- winning novel, "Snow Falling on Cedars," has been adapted to the screen by Scott Hicks, whose "Shine" proved that director's mettle in examining the life of pianist David Helfgott, who had been pushed to the edge by a demanding father. Using flashbacks to a greater extent than he did in that 1996 film--in fact employing flashbacks within flashbacks, overlapping dialogue, and a great emphasis on ambiance and mood--Hicks is not as successful in translating this hugely successful novel for a movie audience. Pushing James Newton Howard's moody score to the limit while zigzagging back and forth to events in the lives of a newspaper reporter, his Japanese love interest, a man accused of murdering his best friend, and groups of Japanese forcibly evacuated to wartime interment camps, Hicks has virtually abandoned all aspects of linear storytelling to the service of fancy camera work. Though he does this in a far more skillful way than a young film student, he nonetheless overemphasizes technique, thus blurring the tale's coherence and leaving the audience flustered. Though some scenes caught by cinematographer Robert Richardson of snow falling on the titled cedars in the Pacific Northwest are stunning--much like images captured in movies like "The Sweet Hereafter" and "The Ice Storm"--they cannot compensate for the oblique narration of a compelling tale, one which highlights the nature of American prejudice, the potential for inequity in our criminal justice system, the value of courageous journalism, and the heartbreak of a thwarted love affair.

"Snow Falling on Cedars" is set in 1951, just six years after the conclusion of World War 2, in the fictional town of San Piedro near Puget Sound in the state of Washington. Kazuo Miyamoto (Rick Yune), a Japanese-American who served the U.S. as a lieutenant in the war, is on trial for the murder of his best friend, a white man. Despite Miyamoto's service for his country he is nonetheless hated by segments of the community as are other Japanese living there, as bitter memories of the war die slowly. A journalist covering the trial, Ishmael Chambers (Ethan Hawke), is seated in the balcony, but he is not an impartial spectator. He is torn between the liberal-humanist ideas of his journalist father, Arthur (Sam Shepard), and the enmity he bears for having lost an arm during the war and, perhaps more important, having lost his girl friend, Hatsue Miyamoto (Youki Kudoh), now married to the defendant.

A more straightforward telling of this story would have served us better. We did not need to wait until the final segments of the movie to learn that Ishmael lost an arm while fighting, nor does Hicks serve us well by showing the battle scene in such a minimalist style that we can scarcely appreciate that Ishmael was in the midst of raging combat. Nor can we be sure on which front Ishmael was fighting. While flashbacks are an appropriate device in a visual art like the cinema--as well as in literature--we are treated to an arbitrary repetition of the mechanism as Hicks takes us now to Ishmael and Hatsue expressing teen love, then back to the more recent past, then once again to their early childhood, back again to the present day. Hicks does a better job when he illustrates what the U.S. government did with many Japanese-Americans--rounding them up and shipping them to fenced-off camps for the duration of the war--a practice not executed against German-Americans or Italian-Americans at all. (Alan Parker, who dazzled us just this month with "Angela's Ashes," reminded us of one of our country's great injustices in his 1990 film "Come See The Paradise," about a hotheaded union organizer who is separated from his Japanese-American wife after Pearl Harbor when she and her family are sent to such a camp.)

Twenty-nine year old Ethan Hawke, so dynamic in the film "The Eighth Day," doesn't get a chance to do much other than look glum and passive, with many of the love scenes between him and Youki Kudoh played by a younger version of his character (Reeve Carney), but Youki Kudoh turns in a fine performance as the conflicted love object ordered by her mother--like the Rebeka Johnson character, Sylvia, in "Liberty Heights" to marry her own kind. Max von Sydow is the scene-stealer, though, as the defendant's gentle attorney Nels Gudmundsson, who tells the jury that since he is virtually looking death in the face, he can prize from long experience the need for justice. While all loose ends are ultimately tied up--Ishmael learning that he must hold on to his father's principles while letting go of his great love--"Snow Falling on Cedars" falls victim to overly pretentious film technique.

Copyright 1999 Harvey Karten

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