Snow Falling on Cedars

     Based on the novel of the same name, this romantic drama from Scott Hicks (director of Shine) is a complexly layered story involving a murder case and the love affair between Ishmael Chambers (Ethan Hawke), an aspiring reporter and the son of the local liberal newspaper editor (Sam Shepard), and Hatsue (Youki Kudoh), a member of the relatively large Japanese-American population of their small west coast town. The love affair took place during WWII, so it was a strained and secretive relationship which eventually fell apart when Japanese-Americans were rounded up by the government and forced into internment camps. While in one of these camps, Hatsue met a Japanese man (Rick Yune) and married him. Meanwhile, Ishmael went to war and became very bitter. At the opening of the film, Hatsue has been back in town for some years with her new husband, and he now stands accused of murdering a fellow fisherman. Ishmael comes to the trial as a reporter, but cannot help becoming personally involved in the case. The film reveals all of this far more artfully than I have, through a slow and careful interweaving of past and present. Memory encroaches on the present continually--sounds from the past obscure sounds from the present as our characters fade back through the years. It’s a beautiful way for the movie to remind us that to the human mind, time is rarely linear, and the present is always seen through the window of the past. Besides stunning editing, the movie is also packed with breathtaking visual images. This is thanks mainly to the great cinematography, which is coupled with powerful acting and a smart screenplay. Perhaps the film’s only fault is a tendency to become a bit self-righteous and melodramatic. Unfortunately, great Swedish actor Max von Sydow must bear the brunt of this particular complaint. He plays the defense attorney in the murder trial, and apparently the filmmakers decided to give his character the job of stating in rather pretentious language all of the important themes of the film, themes which had already been beautifully expressed in images. He even has one of those really long impassioned speeches that always come at the ends of trials in movies. Not only is it annoyingly cliché, it’s completely unnecessary. Nevertheless, Snow Falling on Cedars is still a truly beautiful film.

Jim Genzano




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