Snow Falling on Cedars

Directed by Scott Hicks
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Youki Kudoh, Rick Yune, Max von Sydow, James Cromwell, James Rebhorn, Sam Shepard.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for disturbing images, sensuality and brief strong language.

Review by Matt Heffernan
January 7, 2000

In the last century, the lowest point of American domestic policy was during World War II, when Japanese-Americans were forcibly segregated from society. It certainly didn't compare to Hitler's attempted extermination of Jews, homosexuals, and Gypsies, but it is a deplorable skeleton in the national closet. So, it doesn't necessarily dictate a film in the caliber of Schindler's List, but at least something better than this.

In the fishing and farming community of Amity Harbor, Washington in the winter of 1950, fisherman Carl Heine (Eric Thal) is found dead, caught in his own net. Even thought the cause of death was found to be drowning, the authorities arrested Kazuo Miyamoto (Rick Yune) for murder. He was the last person to see Heine alive, he had a long-term grudge with him, and the fact that he was of Japanese descent made him as good as guilty for the district attorney (James Rebhorn).

The case is of particular interest to Ishmael Chambers (Ethan Hawke), who has been in love with Kazuo's wife, Hatsue (Youki Kudoh), since they were children. He runs the local paper, which he inherited from his Japanese-sympathetic father (Sam Shepard). The Japanese community want him to help sway public opinion, as his father did during the war, but he is still conflicted over his feelings for Hatsue.

If you see the advertisements for Snow Falling on Cedars, you get the impression that this is a story of forbidden love. Those scenes are actually just flashbacks during what is really a conventional courtroom drama. It is lovingly photographed by Robert Richardson, who often collaborates with Oliver Stone and Martin Scorsese, but looking at the same beautiful scene for too long can get boring. Director Scott Hicks (Shine) seems to have trouble keeping the story moving, and makes the whole thing about a half-hour too long.

Indeed, with such long periods of funereal footage, one can contemplate the film's other flaws. The screenplay is very simplistic, and the actors aren't given much to work with. Only Max von Sydow, as Kazuo's defense attorney, makes a distinctive mark. Other notable actors, such as Shepard and James Cromwell are wasted; even Hawke doesn't meet his potential.

Hopefully somebody will improve upon this, perhaps even re-filming David Guterson's acclaimed novel. Maybe this story needs to be told by a Japanese-American instead of some guy from Australia.

For more information, go to the Internet Movie Database:
Snow Falling on Cedars (1999)

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Snow Falling on Cedars (1999) -- VHS
Snow Falling on Cedars (1999) -- DVD
Snow Falling on Cedars, a novel by David Guterson -- Hardcover
Snow Falling on Cedars, a novel by David Guterson -- Paperback
Snow Falling on Cedars, a novel by David Guterson -- Audio Cassette (read by Peter Marinker)
Snow Falling on Cedars: Soundtrack -- Compact Disc Home
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Review © 2000 Matt Heffernan