Snow Falling on Cedars

Continuing the virtual parade of movies based on books is the adaptation of David Guterson's best selling novel Snow Falling on Cedars. The film is a beautiful piece of work about the horrors of racial prejudice, set in Washington State after World War II. The film flashes back and forth in time, using the trial of Kazuo Miyamoto to frame the story of Ishmael Chambers and the community, San Piedro Island. Kazuo is on trial for the murder of Carl Heine, a local fisherman. The level of racial tension in San Piedro is high since many of the Japanese returned from their internment camps. They are trying to begin their lives anew, in the light of prejudice and ignorance among whites caused by the war. Snow Falling on Cedars is light on the amount of dialogue, but very lyrical and poetic.

Ishmael (Ethan Hawke, The Newton Boys, Great Expectations) publishes the local paper. Flashbacks reveal that he once had a relationship with Hatsue Miyamoto (Youki Kudoh, Picture Bride, Mystery Train), Kazuo's wife. They kept their love for each other secret in light of prevailing sentiments by both their parents. Hatsue ended their relationship once the war began, but Ishmael still pines for her. Ishmael is also dealing with living in the shadow of his father (Sam Shepherd, All the Pretty Horses, author of Simpatico) Arthur Chambers. Arthur ran the newspaper before Ishmael, and presented a tolerant view of the Japanese community. In the present, prosecutor Alvin Hooks (James Rebhorn, The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle) squares off against defense attorney Nels Gundmusson (Max Von Sydow, What Dreams May Come, Judge Dredd) and Kazuo (Rick Yune). Von Sydow's performance is absolutely amazing. Gundmusson seems to be an elderly, confused attorney, but mentally he is extremely sharp. One of the best sequences of the film is his closing argument; it is one complete shot of von Sydow with the camera not breaking away on any of the other actors.

Above all, Snow Falling on Cedars is a film to sit back and look at. From a shot in the beginning of raindrops falling on the dark water to snow covered cedars swaying gently in the wind, every shot is loving and reverential towards nature. The movie is awash in whites, grays, blues and blacks, and there are constant shots of the scenery. James Newton Howard's score is also good, complementing the dialogue and scenery; never competing with them. Snow Falling on Cedars was directed and adapted by Scott Hicks (Shine) with co-adaptation by Ron Bass. Although the use of flashbacks is near continuous, the story is never muddled. They serve to bring forth various elements of history or to further develop a character. The level of racism in some members of the community is palpable, and the reasons for their intense hatred of the Japanese is laughable by today's standards. And speaking of such things, Kudoh, who is clearly one of the main characters in the film, gets her name listed far into the opening credits, after actors who occupy much less screen time and are merely supporting characters in the story. Why? Who knows.

Mongoose Rates It: Pretty Good.
2 hours, 6 minutes, Rated PG-13 for disturbing images, sensuality, and brief strong language.

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