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"SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS"
(1999) (Ethan Hawke, Youki Kudoh) (PG-13)

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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: As a 1950 murder trial stirs up memories of Japanese-American internment during WWII, a reporter remembers his former friendship and love for an American born, Japanese woman who's now married to the defendant.
PLOT:
Nine years after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the American and Japanese-American residents of a small Pacific Northwest town get along reasonably well. That is, until a murder trial resurrects racism, suspicions and memories of the past. When a local fisherman, Carl Heine (ERIC THAL), is found dead, several bits of evidence and allegations point to Kazuo Miyamoto (RICK YUNE), an American born young man of Japanese descent, as the suspect.

As prosecutor Alvin Hooks (JAMES REBHORN) and defense attorney Nels Gudmundsson (MAX VON SYDOW) make their respective cases before Judge Fielding (JAMES CROMWELL) and the local jury, Ishmael Chambers (ETHAN HAWKE), a one-armed reporter and war veteran becomes interested in the case. Not only is the trial intriguing to him due to the journalistic blood he inherited from his publisher father, Arthur (SAM SHEPARD), but the defendant's wife, Hatsue (YOUKI KUDOH), was at one time his secret childhood friend and then teen lover.

With various witnesses, such as sheriff Art Moran (RICHARD JENKINS), Carl's widow Susan Marie Heine (ARIJA BAREIKIS), and his mother Etta (CELIA WESTON) called to the stand, their testimony brings up revealing facts about the case, the defendant and the way Japanese Americans were treated during the war.

It also resurrects a plethora of memories and flashbacks for Ishmael as he remembers the times when he and Hatsue (REEVE CARNEY & ANNE SUZUKI) would spend friendly and intimate time together in the hollowed out base of an old cedar tree. Of course the war came along and interrupted everything, with him heading off into service when she and her family were sent off to internment camps.

As those varying memories - including the time when Hatsue called off their secret romance -- pervade his consciousness, Ishmael must decide what to do with a vital piece of evidence that could affect the outcome of the trial and his chances of ever getting his former lover back.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
It's amazing and shocking that after all these years, people still don't get along with one another. While one can believe but not fully understood those of different nations not getting along, it's disturbing that those who live in the same country, city or even street often can't due to any number of reasons. From modern day racial and ethnic strife to divisive events in the past such as the American Civil War and the later internment of Japanese-Americans in WWII, it's sad how fast people can turn on one another, especially when they're former friends and neighbors.

Of course such divisiveness often makes for stirring dramatic movies based on such real-life events or hatred that usually point out just how stupid, pointless and sad such behavior and attitudes really are. Although the related epic battles and dramatic conflict are synonymous with such hatred-based films, one mustn't forget that romantic conflict - such as found in the trendsetter and forerunner of such stories, "Romeo and Juliet" - also stems from such hatred.

Writer/director Scott Hicks, making his first appearance since his highly acclaimed 1996 film, "Shine," certainly hasn't. His latest film, "Snow Falling on Cedars," mixes part of that Shakespearean tale with the aftermath of the aforementioned internment as a backdrop for a murder trial set in the early '50s. While visually impressive and certainly an ambitious and audacious effort, the film ultimately misses the emotional depth and resonance presumably found in David Guterson's 1994 novel of the same name.

As adapted by Hicks and screenwriter Ron Bass ("Stepmom," "Rainman"), the picture is impressively mounted, featuring a story structure that jumps, skips and hops through time as flashbacks, and flashbacks within flashbacks, detail the events leading up to and directly influencing the main plot thrust. The "present day" courtroom scenes are obviously meant to serve as a framework and actual backdrop for the presumably more "important" and interesting material of Ishmael and Hatsue's young love, but in fact, they end up coming off far more compelling and entertaining than the rest of what the film has to offer.

Although the use and interjection of the multi-layered flashbacks is initially compelling and somewhat novel, after a while the temporal hopscotching begins to wear thin. It also ends up disrupting the film's momentum and overall flow, as once we settle in on one particular part of the story (especially the courtroom material) we're whisked away to another flashback-encased moment.

Hick's rather forceful jamming of the film's message down the viewer's throat doesn't help matters either. Yes, the social and ethnic injustices throughout history have been awful and the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII is an ugly stain on our "permanent record." Yet, where Hicks allows some scenes to develop in a beautiful and restrained sense like snow falling gently from the skies, others are as subtle as an old and loud snowplow forcefully pushing and scraping the material along. As such, scenes of the Japanese-Americans being removed from their town go on way too long after the obvious point has already been made. And the director's strong symbolism, while often visually impressive, is just as often a bit too heavy handed.

The film does look gorgeous, however, courtesy of cinematographer Robert Richardson ("The Horse Whisperer," "JFK") who nicely captures the look and feel of the various times and locales of the Pacific Northwest of the 1940s and '50s. Special kudos should go to editor Hank Corwin whose previous work with Oliver Stone on films such as "Natural Born Killers" and "U-Turn" obviously prepared him for the task here of competently assembling a plethora of scenes and footage that similarly give this picture something of an experimental film feel. Meanwhile, composer James Newton Howard ("The Devil's Advocate," "The Fugitive") delivers a score that may occasionally become a bit overbearing at times, but otherwise delivers and elicits the appropriate, haunting effect.

While the tech credits are top-notch, the performances are decent but not spectacular. While not allowed to emote much beyond having looks of concern or longing on his face, Ethan Hawke ("Gattaca," "Great Expectations") manages to be okay in the role. Even so, at times he feels abandoned by the script that never manages to convincingly get what's inside his head (and presumably in the novel) onto the screen.

Youki Kudoh ("Mystery Train," "Heaven's Burning") fares a bit better as his now unattainable lover, but similarly gives off the feel that we don't know her as well as we should. Supporting performances from the likes of James Rebhorn ("The Talented Mr. Ripley," "The Game"), James Cromwell ("L.A. Confidential," "Babe") and Richard Jenkins ("The Mod Squad," "Flirting With Disaster") are all good. The best, however, comes from Max Von Sydow ("What Dreams May Come," "The Exorcist") as the aged defense attorney who's involved in the film's best moments and gets its best bits of dialogue.

In the end, and after we've grown tired of the initially compelling multiple flashback story structure, the biggest problem the film faces is that we never emotionally connect that strongly or effectively with the characters and their stories when that's exactly what should be occurring.

Although the court case and the revelation of facts concerning it and the lovers' romance will keep most viewers interested in the eventual outcome of everything, the fact that we never feel as if we have an emotional connection with any part of what occurs means that the film ultimately and unfortunately comes off as a somewhat distanced affair.

Certainly not horrible, but seemingly lacking in whatever turned the original novel into a beloved, best-seller, the film feels like a snowstorm that progressively gets heavier and then doesn't melt for some time. As such, it's gorgeous to watch, but after a while it piles up so deeply that one begins to tire of it. That, coupled with the less than subtle message that Hicks preaches throughout, means that the film comes off as only moderately entertaining and enjoyable. Thus, we give "Snow Falling on Cedars" a 5.5 out of 10.




Reviewed January 6, 2000 / Posted January 7, 2000


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