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Snow Falling on Cedars

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Before any descriptions of Snow Falling on Cedars, I'd like to mention that the book on which the film is based takes its inspiration from my hometown of Bainbridge Island, Washington (I'd also like to go on and on about how the author, David Guterson, was my high school English teacher, but that's neither here nor there). A central feature of the plot is the forced internment of Japanese-American citizens during World War II. Bainbridge Island has the unsavory distinction of being among the first communities in the United States to expel its Japanese-American population, and during the filming, Guterson arranged to have Bainbridge Islanders who were interned as children used as extras for the scene where the anglo population watches the internees escorted onto boats.

So I got a strange jolt as I recognized my neighbors among the men and women gathered, bags in hand, on the dock ("Hey," I stammered out loud, "that's Frank Kitamoto!"). I wonder if the actors knew the extras' histories, or whether a guy like Sam Shepard knew that his character is based on a man named Walt Woodward, a fiercely principled Bainbridge Island newspaper editor who risked his career and perhaps his life penning one of the country's only anti-internment editorials.

The film is set in 1950 on the fictional island of San Piedro, where a murder trial is about to take place. An anglo fisherman has been found drowned in his netting, and a Japanese-American fisherman, Kazuo Miyamoto (Rick Yune) is accused of his murder. As the trial unfolds, it's revealed that the local newspaper reporter, Ishmael Reed (Ethan Hawke), who sits in the balcony with a pained look, had a childhood love for Miyamoto's wife, Hatsue (Youki Kudoh), and that the Miyamoto family has a history with the dead man's family which centered on the forced internment.

The film is intensely sentimental, full of dark, rich colors, and a relentless, soaring soundtrack. The cinematographer, Robert Richardson (who achieved prominence shooting eleven Oliver Stone films), has been allowed to go to town: director Scott Hicks (Shine) seems to have been intent on packing as many flashback sequences as possible into each scene. Anything from a sequence of balustrades on a balcony in the courtroom to a steaming radiator triggers another visual segue from past to present and back again. Some may find the effect dreamlike. I found myself wanting the film to just tell the damn story already.

The film is fairly true to the plot of Guterson's book, but as with a lot of film adaptations, Snow Falling On Cedars (which, as a book, placed Ishmael and Hatsue into almost unresolveably painful situations) succumbs to the temptation to create a white hero and shamelessly applaud him for his good deeds. Shepard, who plays Hawke's father in a few choice flashbacks, has a film presence which lends gravity to any scene, but Hawke still isn't quite old enough to display the level of emotional conflict the novel demands of the character, and whenever he tries to intensify his gaze and sound hurt, he ends up whining. He may be on his way, however - this is the first film, after all, where he's old enough to have a child actor play his younger counterpart. There's some good court intrigue, and Max Von Sydow is fun to watch as an aging defense lawyer whose dottering manner masks a shrewd courtroom tactician - a mannerly European version of Detective Columbo - but the photography is the reason to see this movie. The opening scenes of a figure in thick fog makes the audience unsure at first whether he's floating in water or atop a mast, and the photography of Puget Sound is gorgeous.

The film breaks no new ground, however, when it comes to character. In a year where directors have managed to rework tired Hollywood themes (see David Russell's Three Kings or Sam Mendes' American Beauty if you don't believe me), Hicks has managed to bring some beautiful photography and commanding actors together, but in the process he seems to have drained some of the vitality out of an otherwise good story. Read the book over the weekend, before you let Hicks read it to you, and then you can decide which you like better.

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Snow Falling on Cedars
Directed by Scott Hicks
rated PG-13

Ethan Hawke
James Cromwell
Richard Jenkins

James Rebhorn
Sam Shepard
Max Von Sydow
Youki Kudoh
Rick Yune

website: Snow Falling on Cedars

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