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Review: 'Snow Falling on Cedars' a visual feast

January 7, 2000
Web posted at: 2:01 p.m. EST (1901 GMT)

By Reviewer Paul Clinton

(CNN) -- In bringing "Snow Falling on Cedars" to the screen, Australian filmmaker Scott Hicks has turned David Guterson's acclaimed 1994 best-selling novel about prejudice and forbidden love -- a complex book without a strong linear story structure -- into a lyrical film with just the barest bones of an interlocking narrative.

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The result is a visual and emotional feast, but one in which audience members must fully participate, or they'll easily lose their way.

On the surface, "Cedars" may seem to be a murder mystery and a courtroom drama. But in reality, this tale -- set in 1950 on the fictional island of San Piedro, just north of Washington state's Puget Sound -- explores the conflicts and prejudices within a small community of American fishermen and their Japanese-American counterparts during the turbulent years surrounding World War II.

In effect, San Piedro becomes a microcosm for all the hysteria concerning Japanese Americans that broke after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

A Japanese-American fisherman, Kazuo Miyamoto (Rick Yune) is on trial for the murder of another local man, a German-American fisherman named Carl Heine (Eric Thal). The two men had been boyhood friends during the pre-war years when there was a fragile sense of community between the Japanese Americans and the Anglos who lived together on this small island. When Heine's body is found entangled in his own fishing nets, suspicion falls on Miyamoto.

During the war years, Miyamoto served his country in uniform while his family -- and the rest of the Japanese Americans on the island -- were forcibly relocated to government internment camps. After the war, the town became racially polarized with suspicion and hatred on both sides.

Ethan Hawke -- in another carefully measured and understated performance that has become his hallmark -- plays a reporter named Ishmael Chambers, a man living in the large shadow cast by his father Arthur (Sam Shepard), the town's journalistic conscience whom we meet in various flashbacks. Arthur founded the local newspaper and was known throughout the island as a fair man who fought for racial harmony. Ishmael, wounded in the war, comes back to take over the paper after his father's death.

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As Miyamoto's trial progresses, we see Chambers quietly watching the courtroom events unfold. Slowly we discover that in his childhood, he shared a forbidden love with a Japanese woman, Hatsue (Youki Kudoh), who is now married to Miyamoto, the accused killer.

When Chambers begins to uncover facts that could affect the outcome of the trial, he struggles with his own inner conflicts over his lost love, the legacy of his father, and the clashing cultures on the island.

Simple grace

Much of Hicks' film is told through flashbacks -- even flashbacks-within-flashbacks -- exploring the complex relationships between characters as the director unravels this convoluted mystery that he has wrapped in misty, snow-covered imagery. The wintry weather serves as a subtle metaphor in which the snow helps to cloak the past.

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With his 1996 Academy Award-nominated film "Shine," Hicks proved himself capable of creating arresting visuals, and with cinematographer Robert Richardson (best known for his work with director Oliver Stone), Hicks has done so again with "Cedars." These exquisite images, married to James Newton Howard's magnificent score, creates a sum greater then their parts.

Swedish actor Max von Sydow (perhaps best known as the priest in the 1973 film "The Exorcist"), turns in an Oscar-worthy, brilliant performance as defense attorney Nels Gudmundsson. He's a righteous man who fights the irrational fears and prejudices handed down for generations in his community, like so many heirlooms of questionable value. His highly charged courtroom scenes are reminiscent of another courtroom drama about racial injustice, the 1962 film version of "To Kill a Mockingbird." Not coincidentally, author Guterson credits Harper Lee's prize-winning story as a major influence.

Strong, noteworthy performances are also delivered by Kudoh, a former Japanese pop singer, James Cromwell as Judge Fielding, and Shepard as Ishmael's late father.

This deeply intricate novel posed a massive challenge for Hicks and his co-screenwriter, Ron Bass, and some subplot is lost in the translation. But the core themes of the original book -- the racial divisions, the hurt and the anger forged by that time and place in history -- are brought to the screen with a simple grace.


"Snow Falling On Cedars" opened in Los Angeles and in New York in December and opens nationwide Friday, January 7. The film is rated PG-13 with a running time of 126 minutes.



RELATED STORY:
Veteran von Sydow finds meaning in 'Cedars' role
January 6, 2000

RELATED SITES:
Official 'Snow Falling on Cedars' site
Universal Pictures
Internet Movie Database: 'To Kill a Mockingbird'
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